Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolás Maduro announced last night from Havana that Hugo Chávez suffered new complications from his fourth cancer surgery. Rumors abound on the true condition of the president, but it now looks certain that Chávez won’t be able to return to Venezuela by January 10th to be sworn in for a new six-year term.
Unfortunately, Hugo Chávez has been the defining figure of Latin American politics in the last decade. His authoritarian populism doesn’t differ much from other Latin American leaders, but his influence on regional politics, buoyed by almost one trillion dollars in oil revenue, has been unparalleled. His permanent absence will have immediate ramifications not only for Venezuela, but for all Latin America.
Let’s start with Venezuela: the Constitution stipulates that if the president-elect is permanently incapacitated before being sworn in, the speaker of the National Assembly will assume power and a new election must be held within 30 days. This is currently the most likely scenario, under which the temporary president will be Diosdado Cabello, a powerful figure within Chávez’s PSUV party with a strong military background. However, Nicolás Maduro, the current Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs, has been anointed by Chávez as his successor and the candidate of his PSUV party in the case of a new election. Maduro is considered to be Cuba’s pick for the top job.
The first question is how united the PSUV will be without Chávez. Some people fear a fratricidal struggle within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government power. Cabello commands the loyalty of top military officials. Maduro counts on the support of Havana and the powerful Cuban intelligence apparatus that controls Venezuela’s security services. So far Cabello and Maduro have displayed a united front, but that could change once Chávez is permanently gone. Another question swirls around the 25,000-strong Bolivarian militia, which consists of die-hard chavistas that have been well armed with Russian rifles and trained by the government to “defend the revolution.” Neither Cabello nor Maduro seems to enjoy their full support.
Then we have the snap vote. Thirty days is an incredibly short time to organize a new election. It’s very likely that Henrique Capriles will once again be the candidate of the opposition. Prior to the October 7th election when Chávez defeated Capriles, polls showed that the opposition candidate would defeat any other figure of the PSUV, including Maduro, in an election without Chávez. However, chavismo proved that it can win without its leader when it trounced the opposition in state elections on December 16th. An election just 30 days after Chávez death will probably be all about him and his legacy. I’d expect the PSUV candidate to benefit tremendously from a sympathy vote for the recently-deceased Chávez. Capriles would have a tough fight ahead under these circumstances.
Regionally speaking, Chávez’s death will have an important effect on Venezuela’s satellite countries. Cuba is certainly the most vulnerable. The Cuban economy would probably implode without the massive oil subsidy it receives from Venezuela. This would jeopardize the continuity of the Castro regime. This is why Havana is playing such an active role in deciding who will replace Chávez and how the succession should play out. Other regional allies such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia would also face cutbacks in economic assistance but not big enough to threaten their leaders’ hold on power.
It has long become clear that Chávez-style populism doesn’t work. Venezuela is in ruins. There are shortages of basic goods. Its infrastructure is literally falling apart. It’s the most corrupt country in the region. It has one of the world’s highest crime rates. Meanwhile, countries that have chosen democratic capitalism such as Chile and Peru are faring much better and represent a far more attractive model. Chávez’s death will only accelerate the demise of his so called “Socialism of the 21st Century.”