Chávez’s designated successor is Nicolás Maduro, who serves as both vice president and foreign minister. With his mentor confined to a Cuban hospital bed, Maduro has emerged as Venezuela’s de facto leader. Last week, for example, he delivered a state-of-the-union address. But Maduro continues to insist that the cancer-stricken Chávez will eventually return from his current incapacity. As the weeks go by, fewer and fewer Venezuelans believe him.
Under the Bolivarian constitution, a president’s temporary absence requires the vice president to assume Venezuela’s highest office, whereas a permanent absence requires the speaker of the national assembly to fill the post until a new president is elected. Thus, if the government were actually obeying the law, either Maduro or Diosdado Cabello would formally have taken power. Instead, both men are adamant that Chávez is still in charge, and both have brushed aside the legitimate constitutional arguments put forward by the democratic opposition.
If Venezuelan democrats were hoping to receive significant support from elsewhere in Latin America, they have been disappointed. Nobody seems particularly bothered that the Chávez regime has blatantly violated the constitution and effectively launched an “institutional coup.” Sadly, the region’s quiet acquiescence does not come as a big surprise.
For many years now, Latin America has followed a risible double standard. When a pro-Chávez thug such as Manuel Zelaya or a leftist such as Fernando Lugo is legally and constitutionally removed from office, Venezuela and its partners (Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua) scream bloody murder and bully other countries into following suit. However, when a member of the Chávez gang launches a genuine attack on democracy, the region is mostly silent.
This double standard has emboldened Daniel Ortega to steal elections in Nicaragua. It has emboldened Rafael Correa to persecute journalists in Ecuador. It has emboldened Evo Morales to brutalize his critics in Bolivia. It has emboldened Cristina Kirchner to lie about economic data and wage war on opposition media outlets in Argentina. And it has emboldened Chávez and his followers to systematically destroy democracy in Venezuela.
Make no mistake: The ongoing constitutional crisis in Caracas is not merely a dilemma for Venezuela. It is also a test of Latin America’s willingness to stand up for democracy. Right now, the region is failing that test.
(This article also available in Spanish here.)