The struggle for the future of Venezuela after Hugo Chávez may already have begun. But, millions of Venezuelans have been holding their next breath wondering whether Chávez is drawing his last. Silent video and still photos released from Cuba late Tuesday are not terribly convincing.
Whatever happens to the ailing leader, the fact remains that Chávez’s regime has outlived its viability, and no Venezuelan should waste a moment pretending that they will mourn its passing.
Leaks from nervous aides who have been at Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez’s bedside in Cuba since June 10 reveal doubts about whether he will return to the helm in time to head-off a violent power struggle within his regime. Vying for power in Caracas are Cuban-trained ideologues that hold key posts today, corrupt cronies desperate to keep their stolen fortunes, and narco-generals worried that their crimes will be exposed once the regime disintegrates.
If these groups clash, Venezuela will likely descend into chaos. If they form an unholy alliance, they would probably agree to scuttle the presidential elections that are scheduled for next year.
Making matters worse, the opposition has left the Venezuelan people guessing whether democratic politicians are capable of competing for the country’s future if the regime begins to unravel.
The opposition’s reticence may be due to the fear that Chávez is lying low to draw rivals out in to the open. However, Chávez’s confidants in Cuba have been genuinely worried about Venezuela’s governability and they are anxious to reassure ardent followers and the military that their leader will recover fully. It is telling that the loquacious Chávez is unable to place a simple phone call or to offer a reassuring word in the recent video.
Like most dictators, Chávez couldn’t care less about a transition plan or the fate of his followers. His refusal to relinquish management of the government to a successor has left some of the normal functions of government paralyzed. There are reports that some corrupt military officers are scurrying out of the country on unscheduled vacations. Chavistas are disheartened, and millions of Venezuelans who have been abused by the regime are ready to settle scores.
If Chávez does not return to his duties soon, or ever, the ideologues, cronies, and criminals on his team may begin a shoving match. In the last several years, Chávez has replaced notoriously corrupt aides who were once his top echelon (Diosdado Cabello, Jessie Chacon, Jose Vicente Rangel, et al) with dull, Cuban-trained ideologues like Vice President Elias Jaua. Jaua and his team are distrusted by the narco-generals, who may throw in with Cabello and company (who have looted tens-of-billions from the treasury) to try to arrange a soft landing for their criminal regime. One thing these groups will agree on is that they cannot risk the accountability that would come with elections. Even if Chávez were to return, his absence has done significant damage that would leave him limping toward presidential elections next year.
Insecurity may explain the silence of most Chavista leaders. But the lack of any thoughtful message from the opposition setting the stage for a “transition moment” is difficult to understand. Now is the time when an attentive public is open to messages about recovering the Venezuela’s democratic republic; competing for the future through free and fair elections; recovering trust between the people and their leaders; rebuilding an inclusive, healthy economy; defending national sovereignty; dismantling the repressive apparatus and restoring the rule of law; and bringing the Venezuelan nation back together.
Opposition leaders should be carrying this sort of agenda to every town, website, and Twitter account in the country and beyond. And they should be dispatching teams to communicate with the international community about their vision for the future. Some nervous Chavistas may snarl at their rivals offering a hopeful alternative, but the vast majority of Venezuelans will surely welcome a bit of clarity about what the future holds for them. Indeed, the only people who should fear such message are the many criminals, terrorists, and client states that have feasted at the expense of the Venezuelan people for the last decade of Chavismo.
If Chávez recovers, he can join the debate. If he does not, everyone will know that the same democrats who won a majority of the votes in the National Assembly elections last September are ready to stand up to claim their country’s future.
Every decent government – including the democracies of the Americas and particularly the United States – should make it clear that they will stand with them.
Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients, and contributes to interamericansecuritywatch.com.