Now that cancer-stricken Chavez has signaled his possible departure, here is how the race to succeed him will go


Before leaving this morning for a new round of cancer surgery in Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made his choice should he become incapacitated or die after nearly 14 years in power: his people should elect his vice president, a 50-year-old former bus driver named Nicolas Maduro.

The 58-year-old Chavez, who in October won a third six-year term and is to take his oath of office on Jan. 10, returned last week from Cuba, where doctors discovered a recurrence of cancer after three prior surgeries over the last 17 months.

Under the nation’s charter, Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, must call elections within 30 days of Chavez stepping down from politics or dying. But the election effectively began the moment Chavez made the emotional televised announcement, in which at one point he sang.

Now, attention will be on Henrique Capriles Radonski, the charismatic 40-year-old opposition leader whom Chavez beat to obtain his third, six-year term. On Dec. 16, Capriles is running for re-election of governor of Miranda state.

Chavez has sought to do away with Capriles once and for all by pitting his former vice president, Elias Jaua, against him for the Miranda governorship. But should Capriles win, he is sure to be a formidable opponent to Maduro.

But it may not be so simple. While Chavez supports Maduro, once the Venezuelan leader is out of the picture, ambition could prevail, and we could also see the 49-year-old Cabello run, too.

In televised remarks, Capriles rejected Maduro. “Venezuela doesn’t have succession,” Capriles said. “This is not Cuba nor is it a monarchy that has a king. Here in Venezuela, when someone leaves a position, the people get the last word.”

In Maduro, Chavez selected someone long and tightly loyal to him and his politics, a skilled operative with strong union credentials to flaunt in the populist Venezuelan political environment in which Chavez flourished. When Chavez was imprisoned following a failed 1992 coup, Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, represented him in court proceedings that resulted in his release. Maduro often accompanies Chavez for the cancer treatments in Cuba, and has been an elected leader since 2000.

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