Is there a Succession Problem within Chavismo?

Succession in Venezuela
Photo of Nicolás Maduro from via Wikimedia Commons

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

This is an updated version of the Spanish article published by Agenda Pública in 2021.

Succession Under Autocracy

Some analysts and experts in Venezuelan politics refer to Chavismo as a political movement that demands permanence in power. It repudiates the alternation of power. Moreover, this is not some sort of reaction to political events, but one of its foundational elements. This shrewd understanding fuels the debate about succession within Chavismo. Indeed, it began when it was learned about the severe illness of its founding leader, Hugo Chávez. Still, nearly ten years later, it remains unresolved. It continues to resurface every election.

Succession is a difficult challenge in the Western hemisphere for autocratic regimes with charismatic leadership such as Cuba and Venezuela. Still for many this may come as a surprise. The succession of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez misled casual observers, because Castro’s retirement and Chávez’s death both gave every indication of transition without drama.

Fidel Castro’s decision to leave the Havana regime’s reins in his brother’s hands guaranteed the continuity of historical ideological and military leadership as fundamental pillars of the Cuban Revolution. Unlike the Soviet regime, in Cuba, a distribution of power added to the unquestionable role of the successor of Raúl Castro, functioning as a mechanism inhibiting internal struggles to displace the fundamental leader because the succession was already resolved.

Chávez, on the other hand, appointed a civilian with no military experience to replace him instead of the former captain who accompanied him in the 1992 coup attempt. Chávez prolonged the decision until it was absolutely necessary. In this way, he avoided what Robbins Burling calls the succession dilemma. The succession dilemma is the decision between selecting a non-threatening successor for an extended period or leaving succession unclear so it eventually sparks internecine struggles.

Succession in Cuba and Venezuela

In both Cuba and Venezuela, succession fell into the hands of uncharismatic personalities, so the transfer of political capital is limited to the infrastructure of power. Indeed, bureaucratic institutionalism will remain despite the absence of personal virtues of those who control power. In Cuba, the certainty of Raúl Castro’s succession was unquestionable because of the family bond and the revolutionary trajectory. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the solemnity of Chávez’s decision made any act contrary to the final wish of the founding leader unlikely.

Despite all of this Fidel Castro may have formally transferred power in Cuba to Raul Castro, but his charismatic leadership was bequeathed to his political heir, Hugo Chávez. Likewise, Maduro also lacks the charismatic qualities of leadership. He merely oversees Chávez’s political testament. This forces the political coalition to close ranks even while Venezuela experiences a terrible humanitarian crisis.

Moreover, what has happened in Venezuela has broad geopolitical and economic repercussions. The definition of its leadership is not only of interest to the country but also to a region whose advances and political setbacks are measured through either the success or failure of Chavista ideology. In the 2018 elections, Maduro was a candidate without apparent opposition. In many ways, the political and economic situation demanded it. Between Trump’s foreign policy and his agenda for Venezuela, the fall in oil prices, and the massive exodus of Venezuelans, Chavismo once again prioritized the preservation of power.

Preserving Power

The vast array of political factions in Chavismo is a landscape of complexity and nuance. This is why preserving power is critical in both its civilian and military wings . The political project is no longer an ideological struggle but a battle to avoid accountability. Consequently, efficiency in government becomes meaningless when political survival is what really matters. In this effort to retain power, the government is unable to face the effects of the pandemic on the population, the renewed wave of migration, and the continuous threats to sovereignty in its national territory. Whether in Caracas, with the armed gangs that anarchize the city, or on the border with Colombia, guerrilla groups relentlessly attack the Bolivarian National Armed Forces. “Venezuela,” according to Andrei Serbin Pont, “is walking blindly towards fragmentation by armed groups.”

Preventing Authoritarian Succession

This crisis is possibly the worst-case scenario for a battle over control within Chavismo to occur. So, many now simply presume Nicolás Maduro’s son is the heir apparent. But other possibilities do exist. For example, Jorge Rodríguez recently won the presidency of the National Assembly. Unlike the former leader, Diosdado Cabello, he combines belligerent discourse with behind-the-scenes work to achieve the long-awaited rapprochement with the government of the United States. Nonetheless, the country may take entirely unexpected directions if the humanitarian crisis worsens or if new attempts to negotiate a political solution to the crisis produce gradual changes and reforms. Ultimately, political leaders may find their options limited as the crisis continues to unfold.

Meanwhile, Chavismo’s ultimate goal is to preserve its political project: the control of power. The political coalition in power remains committed to Chavismo. In other words, they remain committed to holding onto that power. A fracture of that coalition would make its separation from power inevitable. Because Chavismo abandoned any respect for public support years ago, Maduro keeps his coalition united at all costs. So, political change in Venezuela is nearly impossible while he remains in power. Instead, Venezuelans must pin their hopes on preventing another authoritarian succession before a political transition can begin. Unfortunately, it’s not an encouraging conclusion.

About the Author

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics.

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