"Weekend at Bernie's" was a 1989 comedy film in which two bumbling businessmen, invited by their boss to his beach home, arrive there only to find he has been murdered. Worried they will be suspected, they transport the body to various places, waving Bernie's arms in distant greetings to people and engaging the corpse in other antics to give the impression Bernie is still alive.
On January 10th, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, 58, is supposed to be sworn in for his fourth term in office. But Venezuelans still don't know whether the cancer-stricken quasi-democratic president is alive since experiencing complications following his fourth surgery on December 11th in Cuba to remove, as he described beforehand, "some cancerous cells." The constitution requires a January 10th swearing in or, alternatively, installation of an interim president with a new election to be held within 30 days. Not wanting to relinquish power, however, Chavez's inner circle may be contemplating a "Weekend at Bernie's" approach, trying to make Venezuelans believe their president is still capable of functioning.
Ever since Chavez reported he had cancer in June 2011, neither he nor government representatives have released much more detail. The type of cancer is unknown and, therefore, so is the prognosis. Chavez has not been seen for a month now as officials remain tight-lipped, suggesting days ago he may not return in time for the inauguration. Meanwhile, opposition leaders doubt whether officials are speaking truthfully and want a delegation to go to Cuba to determine the president's status. They want to know if Chavez is capable of waving his own arm or whether he has been "Bernieized," i.e., like Bernie, someone else is doing it for him.
Opposition leaders want the obvious intention and interpretation of the constitution to be upheld. This means if Chavez is incapacitated or dead, a new election has to be held, with the 30-day clock starting to tick as of the 10th. Reigning officials, however, may be preparing to take a more liberal position, arguing the constitution allows the inauguration to be postponed. While there is no basis for such an argument, the issue may have to be determined by the country's supreme court, whose judges always support Chavez, whether dead or alive, and, therefore, his cronies as well.
Chavez knew as he departed for Venezuela for Cuba on December 10th, there was a chance he might not return alive. That was why he indicated should that happen, he was to be succeeded by Vice President Nicolas Maduro. There is no debate that Maduro is to so serve, but only as an interim president. There should be no debate, however, that Chavez's inner circle is not to retain power beyond what the constitution mandates-and that is a new election and transition of power to the newly elected president.
There are 30 million Venezuelans in the dark as to whether Chavez is mentally capable of serving, or not. Should he be in a comatose state, lingering on for months or even years, a constitutional interpretation allowing the inauguration to be delayed would leave Maduro in control until Chavez either became capable or died. Undoubtedly, a Cuban economy subsidized by Chavez robbing Venezuela's oil resources to provide Havana with free oil would motivate the Cubans to maintain Chavez on life-support for as long as possible-i.e., until overtaken by natural causes. Such action by the Cubans would receive Maduro's blessing, securing his long-term authority.
During the 13 years Chavez has been in power, he has manipulated his people and their constitution to slowly transition a democracy into a dictatorship. While claiming his mission is to socialize Venezuela, his reign has seen the country ruined economically, oil revenues drastically reduced by incompetent management and "freebies" to allies to spread Chavez's influence, opposition to his authority silenced, corruption and the murder rate reaching epidemic proportions and the nation become a safe haven for Iranian terrorists.
In perhaps the ultimate irony of Chavez's life, the president who took on the Vatican to challenge Catholic influence over his own, was pleading, prior to his most recent surgery, for prayers he would survive. Just like the atheist in a foxhole who only finds religion when his own life is endangered, apparently so too does Chavez.
Venezuela's journey toward socialism and dictatorship has been interrupted by Chavez's cancer. A Maduro presidency, tied to the "Bernieization" of Chavez, means that journey will be continued-with a pro-Chavez replacement in the driver's seat as the only difference. A free election, as mandated by the constitution, may well place an opposition driver behind the wheel, putting Venezuela back on the road to democracy and the rebuilding of its shattered economy.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.
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