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Venezuela after Chavez

Despite miracle cures at the hands of everyone from Jesus to Fidel Castro’s vaunted Cuban medical complex to Afro-Caribbean priests and spiritual healers, Hugo Chavez appears to be in danger of imminent death. Nothing is certain about his condition as his health is being treated as a state secret, but more and more signs point to the probability that Venezuela’s most controversial president since independence is coming to the end of his career. The FT reports:

The longer President Hugo Chávez languishes on his sickbed in Havana, where he has been for almost a month and is battling a “severe respiratory infection”, the more Venezuelans suspect that his rollercoaster rule may be over. [ . . . ]

With rumours already running wild thanks to a dearth of official information—Spanish newspaper ABC says that Mr Chávez is in a coma and being kept alive by a life support system, while unfounded claims that he is already dead proliferate in the twittersphere—Venezuelans speculate that the government may be playing for time to work out how to manage the succession conundrum.

We haven’t wanted to get into the game of speculating over Chavez’ health. We remember decades of feverish rumors sweeping through Miami’s Cuban exile community that Fidel was on his way to meet Marx, so we don’t exclude the possibility of another 40 years of Chavez rule.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the people in Caracas are preparing for the Chavez afterparty. The army, the oil company, the hard lefties in the political organization and the business interests that have aligned themselves with the regime will all be fighting for power.

Typically, communist regimes outlast their founders: Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-sung all passed the bloody baton to like-minded followers. Fascist regimes, on the other hand, tend to break up fairly quickly when the founder dies or steps down, as in Franco’s Spain. The reason the communists last is that communism builds institutions and structures: an army, a secret police and intelligence network, a national group of well trained cadres united under party discipline, and so on. By bringing managers of large enterprises into party structures, communists ensure that economic, political, and military power are all supportive of the party, making for reasonably smooth transitions in most cases.

Chavez does not seem to have succeeded in building as tight a ship as, say, Fidel did. It’s not clear that the military and party structures in Venezuela are as closely connected as they have been in Cuba. The state hasn’t consolidated the kind of economic control that we see in Cuba, and the opposition has been harassed but is still active. The Venezuelan leadership seems more like a collection of tumultuous and ambitious personalities, unlike the faceless apparatchiks that communism usually produced. While this doesn’t tell us that chavismo will disappear with its founder, it does suggest that Venezuela is in for a rocky ride.

The country with the most to lose here is Cuba. Cheap oil from Chavez’ floundering workers’ paradise has kept the communist island afloat. The U.S. should not involve itself in the Venezuelan transition beyond an expression of hope that a new president will restore the institutional basis for genuine democracy. Venezuelans have to figure out their own destiny in their own way.

We wish them luck; they will need it. President Chavez has been an unmitigated curse for Venezuela, weakening its economy, further corrupting weak institutions, and polarizing the country in ways that will be very difficult for his successors of whatever political tendency to overcome. The state owned oil company is a shambles, inflation is out of control, and government institutions are working less and less well even as Chavez’ policies concentrate more and more power in state and para-state hands.

It’s an ugly mess and a sobering reminder of how much damage a demagogue can do.

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