Venezuela's US-funded opposition and the international corporate media has used President Hugo Chavez's serious health issues to run a campaign against the Venezuelan government.
In particular, the opposition has claimed that the failure of Chavez, who is recovering from surgery in Cuba, to be sworn-in by the National Assembly by the originally scheduled date of January 10 means he is no longer president. Chavez was re-elected president for a six year term in October with more than 55% of the vote.
The opposition claims the government is now illegitimate and must call new elections. However, in a move the opposition called a “coup”, the Supreme Court ruled on January 9 that a delay to Chavez's swearing-in was legal.
Venezuela Analysis said on January 10 that various private media outlets, known for their hostility to the government, referred to the decision as a “coup d’etat”, with pro-opposition daily El Universal calling it “the worst crisis in the history of the republic”. Opposition leaders called the decision “a huge lie”.
Despite opposition claims, Venezuela's constitution sets out clear criteria by which a president may be declared “permanently absent”: “death, resignation, destitution decreed by the Supreme Court, mental or physical incapacity certified by a medical council designated by the Supreme Court with the approval of the National Assembly, abandonment of the post, [or] a popular recall of the mandate.”
The constitution does state a president must be sworn in for a new term by the National Assembly on January 10 of the first year of their term. But it also states that if there are factors preventing this from taking place, the president may be sworn in by the Supreme Court. No date is set for this.
It is clear that, having lost at the ballot box again, the opposition is seeking to bring the government's democratic credentials into question ― especially internationally ― and if possible create an atmosphere of crisis to destablise the country.
The National Assembly has voted to grant Chavez as much time as needed to recover from his treatment for cancer. The assembly could, if deemed necessary, declare the president to be “temporarily absent” for a period of 90 days, and can extend this for a further 90-day period. After this, elections would need to be held.
Despite a lot of talk in the corporate media internationally, it seems unlikely the opposition could win new elections. The opposition was not just soundly beaten in the October presidential poll but also in the December contest for state governors and legislatures.
Despite Chavez being unable to take part in the campaign for health reasons, the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 20 out of 23 states ― winning five states from opposition control. Its victory in polls for state parliaments was even more comprehensive.
Chavez has said that, if his health prevents him from being president, vice-president Nicolas Maduro is his preferred presidential candidate.
On top of the two morale boosting electoral wins for the Chavista movement (with the concurrent demoralising effect on opposition supporters), Chavez's clear endorsement of Maduro by Chavez makes it improbable the opposition could overturn the October results in a fresh poll.
Their real game was exposed by threats ahead of the January 10 deadline to call a “national civic strike” and create “anarchy”. This echoes the “national strike” (in reality a bosses lock-out) that crippled Venezuela's economy in December 2002 in a bid to overthrow Chavez, before mass mobilisation by working people defeated the sabotage.
However, despite all the noise in the international corporate media echoing the opposition campaign, the failure of this campaign inside Venezuela was made clear when the opposition's failed presidential candidate Henrique Capriles refrained from calling strikes and protests in his press conference denouncing the Supreme Court's decision, Venezuela Analysis said on January 10.
The reason was made clear by a leaked email from Capriles' party, Justice First, that admitted “most people don’t care about [the claimed coup]”.
Unsurprisingly, the author of the email was forced to concede: “It is difficult to convince people that those who held power before October ― and also won the election ― are now governing thanks to a coup.”
It is also extremely ironic that the opposition would claim “constitutional” grounds to attack the government. The Bolivarian constitution was the product of a profoundly democratic process involving the election of a constituent assembly and nationwide discussions, and was adopted by a referendum.
However, its progressive measures enraged the rich, and at opposition marches copies of the document were burned. When the opposition briefly seized power in an April 2002 military coup, one of its first measures was to abolish the constitution ― before an uprising of the poor brought Chavez and the constitution back.
Powerful corporate interests are hoping Chavez's health problems might be a chance to end the Venezuelan revolution. This popular process has redistributed wealth to drastically lower poverty, promoted many “social missions” that provide free healthcare, education and other essential services to the poor, brought strategic sections of the economy into state hands, implemented land reform to redistribute land to poor farmers, and promoted new forms of participatory democracy.
However, the huge mobilisation by the poor in Caracas on January 10 in support of the revolution indicate that, whatever happens to Chavez, the struggle of the poor majority for real democracy and social justice (“socialism of the 21st century”) is not going anywhere.
[Stuart Munckton is the international editor of Green Left Weekly.]