The death on Tuesday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez leaves a country and a region deeply divided and confused, with students protesting, other locals crying, and pretty much everyone instantly thrown into transition. But one of the most seemingly complex questions — who's next? — may end up being the easiest to anser: Despite a voluminous opposition movement, the controversial leftist's successor is almost guaranteed to be Chavez's former vice president, current interim president, and handpicked heir, Nicolas Maduro. Yes, the same man who announced Chavez's death and who, earlier on Tuesday, accused a U.S. spy of somehow giving Chavez the cancer that led to his demise. Which doesn't sound quite so crazy when you realize Chavez claimed the same thing.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, Venezuela's constitution demands new elections be held within the next 30 days. The most likely scenario has Maduro facing off against opposition governor Henrique Capriles, the man who lost to Chavez during the country's last election. Capriles stands a decent chance against Maduro, considering he had the closest margin of defeat of any Chavez opponent. "My sympathy to all the family and supporters of President Hugo Chavez, advocate for the unity of Venezuelans now," Capriles tweeted in the wake of Chavez's death.
Still, it's hard to argue against Maduro winning. He's seen by many as Chavez's handpicked choice. Heck, he's seen by Chavez as Chavez's handpicked successor. Chavez said so himself when his health first started to fail him in December. At the time, Chavez named Maduro his heir in case "something happened" before his inauguration on January 10. "You choose Maduro as president of the republic," Chavez urged on state television. "I am asking you this from all my heart." Maduro's journey is a strange one. He's risen from being a lowly bus driver to a powerful union leader, to eventually being Chavez's Vice President. Yes, a former bus driver may be Venezuela's new President.
But Venezuela, largely because of Chavez's claims to help the poor rise even as cities like Caracas stumbled into slums, remains a country of deep divide, confusion, and perhaps sudden new opportunity. There are suspicions among analysts in South America that someone may emerge from the sidelines and challenge the pre-decided order of things. Some suspect the current speaker of the Venezuelan congress, Diosdado Cabello, himself a Chavez ally, could break from the party ranks and challenge Maduro for the Presidency from the right. We'll have to wait and see whether that actually happens, and what the potential consequences such a decision would bring. Any sort of division within the factions on the right could open the door for Capriles to achieve what he failed to do in October's not-so-contentious election: win.