Photo Jonathan Blair

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Venezuela's soon-to-be coup-maker? Meet Diosdado Cabello

As Hugo Chavez' health was declining, discussions about his succession focused on a small group of individuals, two of whom dominated the field. One was Nicolás Maduro, a long-time follower of Chavez who had been President of the National Assembly, foreign minister and most recently vice-president. The other one was Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer—he joined Hugo Chavez in a military coup attempt, in 1992—governor, government minister and President of the National Assembly since January 2012. While Maduro had little power of his own and was largely dependent on Chavez, Cabello had built on his close relationship with the military and he was seen as a force of his own within chavista ranks, in spite of the many accusations of corruption that have followed him over the years. In the dramatic press conference Chavez held before leaving for his last journey to Cuba, he put an end to the speculations and told Venezuelans that his chosen successor would be Maduro. Cabello complied and, once the leader was gone, he very publicly embraced Chavez' designated heir.

During the campaign itself, Cabello was given little space while Maduro himself—along with Chavez' ghost, regularly brought in through birds and tweets—completely dominated the party's public presence. Cabello may have been working on his own power base in the background but, clearly, Maduro was trying to fully exploit the Great Man's unction to consolidate his position within the party. He blew his chance however, barely squeaking through with a still contested advantage of 270,000 votes.

Cabello was quick to pounce. On the very night of the "victory" and right after Maduro's confused and shaky speech, Cabello, wearing a military shirt and Chavez' signature red scarf, said very publicly that the tight results called for "a profound auto-critique," a comment clearly directed at Maduro. Suddenly, his lesser presence in the doomed campaign had become a major asset. He has been on the offensive ever since.

Maduro, who had claimed in his post-election speech that he did not fear a full recount, quickly backtracked, no doubt under pressure from those, Cabello chief among them, who had made their sums and saw the danger involved in playing too clean. The government thus made it clear that the results would stand.  Maduro, in an "express ceremony" held Monday morning, was formally declared president-elect by the head of the country's electoral commission, Tibisay Lucena, something she had conspicuously avoided to do the night before, when announcing election results. President Maduro now has to contend with a divided international reaction and a very calm but determined opposition.  His standing among chavistas, meanwhile, is at its nadir.

Cabello is grabbing an increasingly large share of the post-election crisis media coverage. His well-publicized rants at the National Assembly have been extremely aggressive. He keeps calling opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles a "fascist" and has just dismissed a number of opposition members from their position as heads of various National Assembly commissions. Part of his vehemence can probably be traced to his 2008 defeat to Capriles in the race for governor of the state of Miranda, but as one of the regime's leaders most commonly associated with corruption—a leading "narco military," as Venezuelans put it—he may also have an awful lot at stake in his party's keeping control of the state.

Thanks to his much stronger base among the party and the military, Cabello's hand should grow stronger as things deteriorate and tensions rise. If Maduro attempts to resist his influence, or if Cabello is just unhappy with having to wait six years before getting his chance at power, a forced resignation—or a removal by a simple decision of the chavista-controlled Supreme Court (as per art. 233 of the Constitution)—would offer an easy cover for a legal coup. While formally out of the country's line of executive succession, Cabello's position as President of the Assembly is in fact perfect to take over power. In cases of resignation or incapacity, indeed, the Executive Vice-President is prevented by the Constitution to run in the new elections, which must be held within thirty days. Cabello by contrast would be free to run...