Appointments Unsettle State of Venezuelan Politics
Ever since President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela fell ill with cancer last year, intense speculation has focused on his inner circle and who might be groomed as a possible successor. Now, with a lengthy re-election campaign ahead of him, Mr. Chávez has once again upended expectations, scattering some of his closest confidants and promoting some old associates in a way that seems certain to provoke alarm at home and abroad.
On Thursday, a top official in Mr. Chávez’s political party, Diosdado Cabello, was sworn in as president of the National Assembly. Mr. Cabello, a former vice president with close ties to the military and an on-again off-again relationship with Mr. Chávez’s inner circle, wasted no time in announcing to opposition legislators that he had no intention of negotiating with them over issues.
Then came a bombshell with international implications: On Friday, Mr. Chávez announced that his new defense minister would be Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a longtime military ally who has been accused by the United States of links to drug traffickers and by opposition politicians in Venezuela of being hostile to the democratic process. A former head of the Venezuelan intelligence service, General Rangel was accused by the United States Treasury Department in 2008 of working closely with the main leftist Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to help them transport drugs through Venezuela. Since then, further evidence has emerged fleshing out allegations that General Rangel aided the FARC’s efforts to move both drugs and weapons.
“Naming him while he’s on the list that the United States has of likely corrupt officials involved in the drug trade in Venezuela is clearly a thumb in the eye of the United States,” said Bruce M. Bagley, chairman of the international studies department at the University of Miami.
The announcement was sure to play well to Mr. Chávez’s base, which cheers his frequent taunting of the United States as an imperialist power seeking to trample on Venezuelan sovereignty. (Mr. Chávez will burnish his anti-American credentials further on Sunday when he hosts a visit by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.)
The appointment may have been equally calculated to infuriate the opposition. In 2010, General Rangel gave an interview in which he said that the military was deeply loyal to Mr. Chávez and “married” to his political project. Some of his remarks were interpreted as suggesting that the military would not accept the formation of an opposition government if Mr. Chávez lost the 2012 presidential election, although the government later said his words were misinterpreted.
On Friday, Diego Arria, an opposition politician, issued Twitter posts criticizing the appointment of General Rangel, citing the drug trafficking allegations and his remarks about the coming election.
The appointment “is an act of profound embarrassment for the Armed Forces and a threat to all of us,” wrote Mr. Arria, who is seeking the opposition presidential nomination but is not considered a front runner.
Carlos Blanco, an adviser to another opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, said that General Rangel’s appointment carried a political message.
“Rangel Silva is connected to that image, the military officer that won’t allow another leader being in office,” Mr. Blanco said. “That’s the symbol that he represents, and I think that’s what Chávez is bringing into his cabinet.” He said that Mr. Chávez’s intentions would become clearer when he appointed a new vice president, an announcement that is expected soon.
The moves come as Mr. Chávez prepares for an extended political campaign against an opposition that appears more unified than it has been in years. A group of opposition politicians will hold a primary election next month to choose a single candidate to face Mr. Chávez. The presidential election is scheduled to take place in October.
Mr. Chávez’s doctors diagnosed cancer last June, and he spent the remainder of the year shuttling back and forth to Cuba, where he received treatment. But he has refused to give details of his illness and insists that he is fully recovered.
That has not cooled speculation about who might be waiting in the wings. Some speculation has focused on his brother, Adán, the governor of Barinas state and a close confidant. Others have looked to politicians high up in Mr. Chávez’s government.
The equation changed last month, when Mr. Chávez announced that he would be moving several key figures of his inner circle out of important government positions. They included Nicolás Maduro, the foreign minister; Elías Jaua, the vice president; Tareck El Aissami, the interior minister; and Gen. Carlos Mata Figueroa, the defense minister. All four, he said, would run for governorships in states currently held by the opposition.
Mr. Maduro, and to a lesser extent Mr. Jaua, were often spoken of as possible successors to Mr. Chávez. But commentators say that Mr. Chávez has never felt comfortable keeping potential rivals close by.
To many, the ascent of Mr. Cabello and General Rangel represents a strengthening of the military’s hand.
Both men took part in the failed 1992 coup attempt that first brought Mr. Chávez, then a military officer, to the attention of most Venezuelans.
Rocío San Miguel, a legal scholar who heads an organization that monitors Venezuelan security issues, said that Mr. Chávez might be seeking to solidify the loyalty of military officers in case the result of the October elections is in dispute.
“They are really who he has the most confidence in,” she said. If the October election is close or if the opposition disputes the results, she said, the military wing of Mr. Chávez’s party would be “absolutely indispensable.”
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting from Caracas.