If President Chavez goes, what future for PetroCaribe beneficiaries?
AILING President Hugo Chavez has returned to Venezuela, but that is not synonymous with a return to active service as leader of the country.
His arrival in Caracas is not likely to silence political opponents salivating at the prospect of his demise, nor will it end the rampant speculation that his precarious health could force him to resign from office.
He has been president for 14 years during which time he has been a populist in domestic policy and a nationalist in foreign policy. He has ignited the ire of local oligarchy for his income and wealth re-distribution policies and the opprobrium of the United States for his adulation of Cuba's Fidel Castro.
His aid through postponed payments for oil has been indispensable to the economic survival of Cuba and the Caribbean by means of the crucial PetroCaribe Fund.
The question is whether the 58-year-old leader who has been fighting an undisclosed cancer since June 2011 will ever be well enough to return to the presidency to which he was elected for the third time in October, 2012. A continued and protracted absence from the presidency raises constitutional issues and engenders political uncertainty which could degenerate into chaos. Political chaos in Venezuela could destabilise Latin America and the Caribbean, because it would seriously affect several countries.
It was increasingly untenable to claim the presidency and not even be in the country. Being in Venezuela does not resolve the question of Mr Chavez not being sworn in as president. The opposition is already calling for new elections on the basis that Mr Chavez is incapacitated. Doubts persist because a tracheotomy may have damaged or diminished Chavez's voice, ending his famous volubility.
If, as is claimed, he is making the major decisions -- sometimes having to write rather than speak -- is it the best situation for the country? Should Chavez not be allowed to continue his convalescence after three months of cancer treatment in Havana rather than jeopardising his recovery with having him work?
The prevailing uncertainty is evident in the decision earlier this month to devalue the Bolívar, from 4.3 to the US dollar to 6.3, while the black market rate is 22. The devaluation is aimed at boosting government revenue (more local currency for oil exports) to close a growing fiscal deficit, but it sends up the cost of living for the poor, which could erode mass support.
Those countries that benefit from the PetroCaribe must urgently make plans and must not complacently assume that there will be unchanged continuity. It would be far wiser for these countries to do some scenario planning on a worst case basis so as to be prepared for any eventuality.
Meanwhile, we wish President Chavez a full and speedy recovery and hope that the political situation in Venezuela is resolved peacefully and democratically for the good of the people of that country, and indeed the people of Latin America and the Caribbean.