While reports of Hugo Chávez’s death may be exaggerated, there is little doubt that his prolonged treatment in Cuba is giving rise to a crisis, in which the Venezuelan workers are likely to lose out.
Chávez went to Cuba for cancer treatment on 11 December, the fourth time he has been for treatment in less than two years. He has not been seen in public since and missed his swearing in as president on 10 January.
Before his latest surgery, Chávez anointed vice president Nicolás Maduro his successor if circumstances required him to step down. Maduro has so far only taken the reigns temporarily, rather than be installed in power. The constitutional anomalies only indicate the Bonapartist nature of the regime, built around the cult of Chávez.
The immediate threat is not from the demoralised right wing opposition, which lost both the presidential election and 20 of the 23 gubernatorial elections in December. However in the medium term the opposition, backed by the US government, is likely to gain from the absence (or at least weakness) of the Bolivarian leader.
The vacuum at the centre is most likely to play out first in a battle between Bolivarian rivals. Although Maduro has embraced his main competitor Diosdado Cabello and there is talk of unity and collective leadership, behind the scenes there is jockeying for position.
This will become clearer in the run up to mayoral elections in May. Previously Chávez and the PSUV central committee decided on candidates. Now the party say they will have to create a mechanism to determine who will stand.
Long-time Venezuela-watcher Steve Ellner reckons that the absence of Chávez will affect the strategy of making bold moves immediately after electoral victories, what is euphemistically regarded as “deepening the revolution”. Previously these have included nationalising firms and new welfare spending programmes. A weakened Chávez, Maduro, or whoever emerges from a power struggle, will have less latitude to push their measures forward, while the state bureaucracy and its “Boligarchy” will strengthen their grip.
For the Venezuelan working class, fratricidal conflict within Chavismo and a polarisation between Chávez’s forces and the opposition are likely to narrow the democratic light and air needed to form an independent labour movement.
Many trade unionists will understandably see Chávez as a lesser evil compared to the neoliberal opposition, but this pragmatism would bind the labour movement to the declining Bonapartist project. Venezuelan socialists need to find their own third path between these poles.
A first test of the balance of forces will come on 23 January, when both the chavistas and the opposition have planned marches in Caracas. The date the anniversary of the day in 1958 when the dictatorship of Marcos Jimenez was overthrown and a semi-democratic system introduced in Venezuela.
Socialists and trade unionists in Venezuela should use it as an opportunity to make their independent voices heard.