Venezuela’s real-life telenovela has taken a dramatic and dangerous turn for the worse with the hospitalization and new round of cancer surgery undergone by President Hugo Chávez in Cuba. While Mr. Chávez ails, his country remains in a state of suspended animation and Venezuelans are left to wonder where their country is headed.
In a genuine democracy, the traditions and independent institutions of the country offer a guarantee of political stability when the elected leader can no longer wield power. But Mr. Chávez would have none of that, irresponsibly tearing down all rival sources of power in his 14-year drive to build a one-man government. As a result, the prospect of instability, even political and social turmoil, appears all too real should his absence become permanent.
Never have the failures of Mr. Chavez’s project seemed more obvious. The president created his movement atop a faction-riven foundation whose base includes political rivals more likely to be at each other’s throats than to stick together in a leadership crisis.
Potential heirs to the communist Cuba-inspired “Bolivarian revolution” are led by Nicolás Maduro, vice president since October, a former bus driver and long-time Chávez crony who became foreign minister in 2006. A radical ideologue eager to lend support to leftist regimes, he backs dictatorships in Libya, Iran and Syria, to name a few.
Mr. Chávez, in his last news conference before leaving for Cuba, pleaded with Venezuelans to elect the vice president as his successor, but there is no guarantee this ploy will succeed. Mr. Maduro is no Chávez in the charisma department. It’s doubtful that he can attract the level of popular support necessary to disarm his rivals politically.
Watching from the wings will be Diosdado Cabello, who leads the military faction and has been something of a political enforcer inside the Bolivarian movement.
Because the loyalty of the military will be critical in determining Venezuela’s future, Mr. Cabello will doubtless have something to say about what happens next and plenty of power to exert.
The regime’s weaknesses go well beyond the merely political, ensuring that whoever becomes president will inherit a huge mess. Government mismanagement is rampant, beginning with the economy. Inflation is running at 18 percent, another devaluation is all but certain. Practically every public institution is rife with corruption. The homicide rate is appalling, one of the highest in the world. Consumer goods are scarce.
As a result, the government has been obliged to keep increasing public spending to keep its followers happy. Yet even so, President Chávez defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles by only 11 points in his winning bid for reelection in November.
This would be a substantial margin in a genuinely free election, but not much to boast of considering that the government controlled the media and the election apparatus, spent freely to win voter support and used bully tactics to scare opponents.
The president may yet undergo another miraculous recovery. He has certainly proven himself physically resilient in the past. But the odds don’t appear to be on his side, and even supporters in Venezuela and elsewhere openly question whether he can make it to the January 10 inauguration.
In that case, voters will have 30 days to elect a new president — in a vote under the control of a leaderless regime whose main figures lack democratic credentials. Such is the legacy of Hugo Chávez.