The news from Havana that Venezuela’s president-dictator Hugo Chávez is in “critical condition” in a Cuban hospital has naturally electrified the public in his own country and aroused a wave of curiosity throughout the region. Nothing has been heard from him in over two weeks (except for a tweet which well might have been posted by an aide). Members of his family have been summoned to his side. The colorless non-entity who serves as his vice-president has quietly assumed the helm of state.
All kinds of intriguing questions are posed. How ill is Chávez really? Will he recover? If he does, will this enhance his faltering numbers with public opinion when he runs for reelection (a third six-year term, not counting the first couple of years under Venezuela’s pre-chavista constitution) in 2012? But the bigger issue, of course, is what happens if Chávez dies?
Let’s start with the malady itself. We’ve been told that Chávez was operated on for a “pelvic abcess.” This is possible but not likely. A cursory tour of the Internet reveals that this is a bladder dysfunction that characteristically attacks women, not men. There is some speculation he is actually suffering from prostate cancer, which would be logical for a man his age. Even if a malignant growth were removed, however, by now there is no reason to assume that he wouldn’t be available for a photo-op in the hospital; if it were benign, all the more so. For dictators a health crisis is the worst possible thing that can happen, all the more so when the regime itself is a one-man show. Naturally enough Chávez’s real condition, whatever it is, must remain a state secret as long as possible.
It’s reasonable to assume that if Chávez recovers and returns to Venezuela, he will resume running the country in his own inimitable style — which is to say, he will continue to use the exchequer as a private slush fund to buy friends at home and abroad (including former congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts). Venezuela’s oil industry will experience a decline in production only partially offset by high prices; inflation and food shortages will be the order of the day; and Caracas will remain one of the most violent cities in the world, with a murder rate unmatched in the hemisphere. Vast sums — literally billions — will continue to be spent on Soviet-era weaponry to equip an army that can’t march straight and whose generals all need to join Weight Watchers. In sum, things in Venezuela will be pretty much as they were before the president went to Havana for his operation.