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Venezuela the morning after

Our friend Mark Falcoff writes to comment on the news that Hugo Chávez is in serious condition:

The latest rumors out of Caracas — unconfirmed but not wholly without some foundation — are that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez may be fatally succumbing to cancer. If this is so, it won’t be long before the world knows it. The news certainly justifies some reflection on what might happen in that country were the president to die at the present time.

The fact is, chavismo is a one-man circus. There is simply no one else in the regime, not even his brother Adán, who can play the same role and attract the same level of political support. Chávez’s survival is absolutely crucial to the continuation of the regime, because the Venezuelan president, for all his buffoonery, for all the waste and corruption and downright silliness associated with his government, is still popular with roughly half the country’s population.

On the other hand, perhaps as much as forty percent — certainly thirty percent — are mildly to strongly opposed to his regime and its continuation in any form.

It is common to point out that the opposition is not merely numerically outnumbered, but also qualitatively weaker. There is no outstanding opposition leader–indeed, there are far too many individuals competing for the same role.

There is another factor which has not been mentioned in the public prints. Many of those who would be the logical leaders of a viable, sensible and constructive alternative in Venezuela have given up on their country and emigrated, mainly to South Florida. They will not be returning. Any comparison to the Cuban exile community in Miami would be off-base, because Venezuelans, unlike Cubans, have a very weak and imperfect sense of national identity. It is cruel to say it, but true nonetheless, that they have never really believed in their country, only in its oil revenues.

Even so, Chávez’s designated successor, if there is one, will not find it easy to rule Venezuela, even equipped with bags of cash and armed with weapons both heavy and light. In the last few years, with oil prices topping $100 a barrel, it has been necessary for Chávez to cut back on his generous political payola, both to his own people and to his clients in Nicaragua and Bolivia. This is so because of bad economic policies, incompetence at the highest levels, but also because of poor maintenance of equipment in the state oil company. Thus in a time of price bonanzas, Venezuela has had far less to sell on the world market than would normally be the case. There is no reason to think that this situation will improve in the middle term.

All of this adds up to a very confused political situation which could easily erupt into violence, even civil war. In that case no particular outcome could be predicted.

But let us suppose that a successor-regime emerging from opposition to Chávez would win such a conflict. Apart from experiencing severe difficulties winning diplomatic recognition from many countries (including, conceivably, Barak Obama’s Washington), it would have just as much difficulty consolidating itself as one designated by the expiring strongman. Indeed, it might have even more trouble, as poor Venezuelans over time would “remember” the best aspects of the former regime (its generosity with hand-outs and its tin-foil nationalism) and quickly forget its inefficiencies and corruption. The case of Perón’s Argentina in the late 1950s is a disturbing precedent.

One last observation. For the last decade the Castro brothers in Cuba have strongly depended on the transfer of 90,000 barrels of oil a day to finance their crumbling economic situation. Of course, most of these barrels never actually arrived in Cuba; they have been sold on the internet for hard cash. That, along with modest tourist revenues and remittances from the Cuban exile community, have kept the Castro regime just barely above water. Recent visitors to Cuba have assured me that there is no single eventuality which is more feared on the island than the disappearance of Chávez, either physically or politically. Thus a crisis in Venezuela could easily be felt just as violently in Cuba as in Venezuela itself, but for reasons of mere geography, more likely to present serious problems controlling migration out of the island to the one place most Cubans aspire to live.

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author (among other books) of Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy (AEI Press).

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