Mark Falcoff: Venezuelan prognosis

Occasional contributor Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at AEI. He is the the author, among other books, of Modern Chile, 1970-1989: A Critical History and Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy. Mr. Falcoff comments on Venezuela’s future from a perspective that may have some resonance closer to home:

Careful reading of news stories coming out of Venezuela these days lead one to an ineluctible conclusion: when president-for-life Hugo Chávez left Cuba a few days ago, it was in order to die in his own country. Just what this might mean for the future I will discuss in a moment.

Let me first make Power Line readers aware of an enormously important television interview in Spanish conducted out of Miami a few days ago on a talk show run by Peruvian novelist and commentator Jaime Baily. T he guest was Dr. Jose Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan cancer specialist who now lives in Florida and who has treated hundreds of cases similar (as far as we can know) to what afflicts Chavez.The interview is posted on for those who can understand Spanish. Dr. Marquina speaks quickly with a strong Venezuelan accent but he is so clear in his exposition that anyone fluent in the language could easily follow him.

The first point he made is that Chávez made a big mistake going to Cuba for treatment. Brazil would have been better, Venezuela would have been better, and obviously the United States would have been better. The reason is that cancer treatments evolve and progress rapidly, but Cuban doctors are rarely if ever allowed to go to enrichment seminars in First World countries. Of course it is perfectly alright for them to go to, say, Burkina Faso or Bolivia or Haiti, but never, never never to Madrid, Paris, New York, Houston, and so forth, where they could exchange views with colleagues of the first rank. They might defect. The result is that the level of skills needed for the kind of delicate operations of the type Chavez has been undergoing are lacking. Presumably the decision to operate in Cuba was dictated 100 percent by the need for extreme secrecy as to what ailed Chavez and how he was responding to therapy.

His second point was that since Cuba is, obviously a small and rather poor country, it isn’t surprising that the equipment there is not cutting-edge. The kind of hospital where Chavez was confined in or near Havana is restricted to high-ranking members of the nomenklatura, too small a client base to justify a first-rate infrastructure. (He suggested that in the past many less famous patients from the Cuban elite than, say, Fidel Castro, have been sent outside the country for advanced treatment.)

The third point was that Chávez is probably on a respirator, and could remain there for a very long time, perhaps indeed for months. (He did not–but might have–mentioned the case of Ariel Sharon.) Baily, whose mordant sense of humor is famous in the world of Spanish-language television, could not help raising the matter of frequent power blackouts in Cuba, but Dr. Marquina explained that these units have reserve batteries.

The bottom line is that while Chávez is moving towards his final encounter with his Maker, he may not arrive in the immediate future. This puts Venezuela’s institutions in a holding pattern, perhaps indefinitely. Some observers assume (or hope) that if the president-dictator does expire, this could herald enormous changes in Venezuela’s domestic and foreign policies. I have reason to doubt this.

Before his departure for Cuba, Chávez named Vice President Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver with some natural political instincts. Perhaps indeed others will step forward and push Maduro aside. But whether Maduro remains or is replaced by someone else, the regime will survive.

All public opinion polls show that in a new election (such as would be mandated by the constitution should the president expire) the chavista candidate (whoever he might be) would win by a landslide. Moreover, it is likely that Venezuela will have some sort of chavista regime for decades to come, much like Argentina continues to have a Peronist president four decades after the death of the party’s progenitor.

The reason is quite simple. The only enduringly popular political system Latin America has ever been able to develop is what I would call boom-and-spend populism. In the case of chavismo, there is the spicy additional ingredient of class and racial hatred, which has been simmering below the surface for decades and to which the president-dictator has made far more explicit. What makes the Chávez model particularly durable is the steady inflow of petro-dollars–less, perhaps, than before, and more wastefully deployed than ever before, but still, enough to satisfy a client base of at least forty percent of the population–and probbly more.

No matter what may go wrong in the future (the continued deterioration of the state oil company’s infrastructure and production capabilities, food shortages, blackouts, the highest murder rate in the Western hemisphere, corruption, the useless deployment of millions to buy support from foreign governments, and so forth) what Venezuelans for the coming decades will “remember” is that one Chávez came along and punished the “oligarchs” (the white Venezuelans, so to speak) and “did something” for “the poor.” True, they will remain poor, perhaps indeed they will be poorer still. Nonetheless, this memory should be enough to make Venezuela Chávez country for decades to come, with or without the man himself.

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