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.
But let’s suppose for a moment that Chávez dies. What then?
The first thing we can be certain of is that there can be no chavismo without Chávez. There is simply no one in the regime who combines his audacity, his recklessness, his flair for showmanship, and his raw popular appeal to roughly 40 percent of Venezuelan society. It’s true that his siblings are involved in various aspects of his government, but none have a personal following of their own. The comparison is particularly relevant with respect to Cuba, where Raúl Castro, the dictator’s brother, long had a constituency of his own (the Cuban armed forces) before assuming the presidency on his own.
In fact, in these past few days many references have been made to Cuba and the possible role it would play in the event of Chávez’s disappearance. Clearly the relationship between the two regimes is something more than platonic, but Venezuela is not — as some opponents of Chávez like to argue — a Cuban colony. Venezuela provides Castro’s faltering economy with 100,000 barrels of oil a day (most of which it resells on the world market for hard cash). In exchange, the Cubans provide Chávez with security personnel, intelligence officers, and political advisers. Cuban doctors, teachers, and sports trainers are also offered to sweeten the deal. But the economic aspect is so asymmetrically tilted in Venezuela’s favor that one could hardly speak of the country as being controlled (or even heavily influenced) from Havana. Quite the contrary; Havana’s worst nightmare is a reversal of political fortunes in Venezuela, without which its own survival would be problematic.
Moreover, whatever personal friendship may exist between Fidel Castro and Chávez (the relationship with Raúl is far less clear), the Cuban leadership as a whole privately regards Venezuelans as a self-indulgent and undisciplined lot, lacking in militance and a willingness to sacrifice well-being for a revolutionary dawn which (as in the case of Cuba) is continually receding over the horizon. In this they are, of course, absolutely correct. In fact, the Cubans viewed Salvador Allende’s Chile in much the same light— a country which, in spite of Fidel Castro’s stern warnings for three long years, pursued a combination of socialism and consumerism until hyperinflation brought it to grief.
While Chávez has tried to cobble together an ideology that utilizes a Marxist vocabulary and some fragments of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, it is not recognizably Marxist in practice. The Venezuelan president has hardly bothered to form a serious party of his own. He even allows opposition parties to function, much as the late Argentine dictator Juan Perón did, and for much the same reason — namely, he knows they cannot win an election on their own. And like Perón, he even finds it convenient to periodically make deals with corrupt members of the business class. Whatever this is, it is not a replica of the Cuban experience, and the Cuban leadership recognizes as much.
If the Cubans do not think particularly well of Venezuelans, there is no love lost in reverse. Venezuelans do not admire Cuba or Cubans. (Like many Latin Americans, they might well admire Fidel Castro and his revolution, but regard both as best suited to Cuba, not to their own countries.) In fact, repeated opinion polls show that the country Venezuelans most wish to resemble is — alas! — the United States. The fact that this is an impossible dream feeds much resentment and frustration, and no doubt explains to a considerable degree the appeal that Chávez has for the bottom third of Venezuelan society.
Chávez’s illness — and its possible mortal consequences — casts into sharp relief the profound moral and political crisis of Venezuelan society. The old governing class that was ousted from power by Chávez in 1998 was so discredited by decades of corruption, mismanagement, and lack of disciplined focus that it has been unable thus far to regroup its forces and offer a credible alternative.
What this means is that after Chávez — if he in fact expires — Venezuela will be deeply divided, much as Argentina was after the overthrow of Perón in 1955. In the best of cases, it will be ungovernable, poisoned by the legend of what might have been (“if only Chávez had lived”); in the worst, it will collapse into civil war. The most likely immediate outcome is a kind of military dictatorship, which by the way is also what awaits Cuba after the Castro brothers leave the scene. What its ideological coloration will be, what foreign- and domestic-policy choices it makes, are beyond prediction. But Venezuelans have good reason to fear the future.
— Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute and author, among other books, of Modern Chile, 1970-1989: A Critical History and Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy.