Preparing for a future without Hugo Chávez

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Article Highlights

  • Chávez cronies are confident he can win in 2012. That is, if he survives until then

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  • A Venezuela without Chávez will have an impact on its neighbors and partners

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  • Venezuelans fighting for democracy will need solidarity of democrats throughout the world

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Succession vs. Transition

Ever since Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez acknowledged his bout with cancer in a dramatic July 1 address to the nation, his countrymen have been kept guessing about his condition. "I am free of illness," Chávez, 57, said upon returning to Venezuela after the latest in a series of visits to Cuba for specialized medical care.1 Indeed, weeks earlier, Chávez already had declared himself to be cancer-free after a mere four months of chemotherapy. The regime's implausible claim of such a miraculous recovery may placate Chávez's staunchest followers, but it serves to confirm suspicions that he his withholding the facts about the gravity of his illness, as well as the true prognosis. In fact, my sources within the government, whose reliability is confirmed by reams of authentic documents and corroborated information they have provided me in recent years from within Miraflores Palace, have told my team that Chávez was notified in June that he has no more than a 50 percent chance of living 18 months. Consistent insider accounts of Chávez's treatment confirm that his medical team is wrestling with the side-effects of the chemotherapy so they can treat his unusually aggressive cancer. As a result, his dire prognosis has not improved.

"Chavista leaders are prepared to defy international norms and scuttle the Venezuelan constitution if that is what is required to keep power."--Roger Noriega

Chávez cronies are confident that he can win reelection in October 2012, but they are increasingly concerned that he may not survive until that fateful date and may not be able to transfer his electoral appeal to a stand-in candidate.2 Because they are not willing to risk losing power, my sources say the Chavistas are plotting to impose a succession - even if it means scuttling the electoral process and democratic transition. That sort of radical, but fail-safe, succession strategy is essential for the narcogenerals;3 for example, unlike other corrupt Chavista cronies, corrupt senior commanders who have been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, or indicted in U.S. courts, cannot seek safe-haven in third countries. Judging from recent precipitous actions by the regime - including relocating $30 billion in international reserves from Western banks to China and Russia4 - Chavista leaders are prepared to defy international norms and scuttle the Venezuelan constitution if that is what is required to keep power.

At the same time, Venezuela's democratic opposition is more united than in recent memory. It is important to recall that the opposition slate won a majority of votes cast in the September 2010 national assembly elections - powerful evidence of what is possible when Chávez's name is not on the ballot. Judging from the dire prognosis referenced above, even if Chávez is able to secure reelection, it will be difficult for him to complete the first half of a six-year term, meaning that a special election would have to be held to choose a successor. In other words, the opposition might have two chances to win power in the next few years. In short, the Venezuelan opposition must begin to prepare for a future without Hugo Chávez.5 The same is true for the U.S.government, which has been all but ignoring Venezuela for the last five years.

Chávezis the Past

The Venezuelan leader is a force of nature. It appears, however, that nature has taken a hand, and cancer is winning its battle with Chávez. It is also likely that Chávez's ability to bankroll failed populist policies in third countries will be sorely tested as he struggles with his health and the disintegration of the economy and infrastructure at home.

Nature has nothing to do with the man-made disaster that Chávez will leave behind in Venezuela. Perhaps it is his wish to leave a Venezuela that is practically ungovernable, characterized by:

  • Political polarization.
  • Armed and angry partisans.
  • A collapsing economy propped up by a monstrous, costly government.
  • Millions of poor people who are reliant on unsustainable government program.
  • Ruptured democratic institutions.
  • Billions in debts to China and Russia

In the Americas, Chávez will leave behind a number of countries that have come to rely on his corrupt spending to pad budgets or to suborn opponents of client regimes in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Moreover, my supposition is that a post-Chávez regime - made up of Chávez's cronies or democratic opponents -will have little interest in an international agenda or aggressive hostility to the United States.

A Venezuela without Chávez will have an impact on its neighbors and partners. It is hard to imagine how the Cuban regime can hold on to power without the $5 billion it now receives annually from Venezuela. Narco-traffickers and terrorist operatives will likely have to look for new havens. Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua will be losing a cash-cow and spiritual leader. Russia will be losing a customer for its arms. Iran will be forfeiting a co-conspirator. And China will wonder whether a successor government in Caracas will repay $30 billion in loans. On the upside, relieved governments in the Americas will not have to worry about maneuvering around the neighborhood bully.

Venezuela's Democratic Opposition

Venezuela's opposition does not want or need help from outsiders. However, for them to have a chance of winning the presidency, in the coming months they will need the solidarity of democrats throughout the world.

The opposition will hold a primary on February 12, 2012, to choose a unity presidential candidate. All of the leading candidates have agreed to participate and to unite behind the nominee; several prominent perennial candidates have opted not to contest the process. The leading opposition candidates are Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of Miranda state; Pablo Pérez, governor of Zulia state; María Corina Machado, National Assembly deputy and civic leader; and Leopoldo López, former Mayor of Chacao.6

This means that the opposition candidate who runs a campaign that effectively appeals to Venezuela's poor majority will likely become the opposition's choice. This opposition presidential candidate will be in a position to attract voters from Chávez's political base who will be "orphaned" upon his demise. As with any election, the candidate who communicates a constructive vision about the future will likely carry the day.

For that to happen, opposition candidates must recognize that the future will be one without Hugo Chávez. They will have to be prepared to make the case that they can govern effectively by bringing rampant crime under control, rebuilding the economy and dealing with the dark shadows of foreign influence in Venezuela.

United States Needs a New, Vigorous Policy

The United States will confront challenges as well.

One thing is clear: the United States can no longer go without a Venezuela policy. And with Chávez fading, we need to defuse the threats that he will leave behind and take advantage of the opportunities created when he leaves the stage.

I understand the conscious policy of ignoring Chávez, lest he be able to make theUnited States a foil in his domestic politics or use U.S.-Venezuelan disputesas a way to polarize regional diplomacy. I adopted that approach when I became Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs in 2003, with the express hope that other governments in the region would feel more comfortable defending democratic principles if they were not perceived as following Washington's lead. The feckless performance of the Organization of American States in recent years is proof that this strategy did not bear fruit. Nevertheless, this reticent policy was continued by my successors long after it proved ineffective. As a result, what we have today is a region muddling through or drifting wherever Chávez pushes, with democracy under fire in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and elsewhere.

Moreover, it is fair to ask whether the strategy of ignoring Chávez has made the United States any safer, or advanced its influence or interests in the Americas. Even those whose minimalist expectations were to preserve the U.S.-Venezuela oil relationship must be disappointed in the precipitous 50 percent drop in U.S. oil imports in the last decade, at the same time as China's share of Venezuelan oil has increased by 1000 percent since 2005.

Few would argue that the current U.S. approach has led Chávez to be less confrontational or less aggressive in pursuing his anti-U.S. partnerships with China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Hezbollah and narco-traffickers. On the contrary, our passive policy has sent a signal to the region and beyond that Washington does not know or care what Chávez is up to or, for that matter, what mayhem he is sowing in the rest of the region.

Worse yet, Washington has sent a signal to democrats under assault in the region that they are on their own. Notably, it has sent a message to China that the United States does not care if China supplants it as a customer for Venezuelan oil.

The alternative to neglect is not confrontation. What is required is deft action to defend U.S. interests and promote U.S. values. For example, the United States must share information with our neighbors demonstrating that Chávez's complicity with narco-traffickers, support for Iran's illegal nuclear program (mining for uranium in Venezuela), support for Hezbollah and a massive arms build-up are destabilizing and dangerous for this Hemisphere and beyond.7

We also must send messages to China and Russia that we do not appreciate their joining Chávez's conspiracy against us. We must recognize that Venezuela's role as areliable source of oil has changed significantly and that as long as a regimeled by Chávez cronies remains in power, the United States will continue to lose ground in that strategic relationship.

Whether it is an alliance with Iran or with drug traffickers, Chávez has waged asymmetrical warfare against the United States and our allies. We need to adopt an asymmetrical response that includes:

  • Law enforcement, to send a message that Chávez's criminal cronies will be held accountable and that it would be unthinkable for a narco kingpin to be accepted as head of Venezuela by the United States or by the dozen countries that are paying a terrible price for narco-trafficking.
  • Inform China and Russia that normal commerce in our neighborhood is welcome, but conspiring against U.S. interests to do bad things in the region is most unwelcome.
  • Communicate with people directly, through new media and purposeful aid programs, and send unambiguous messages of solidarity to the very poor and to democratic activistsin the region.

In the last several years, the United States has adopted a conscious policy of placating our enemies and ignoring our friends. Just as Chávez is becoming a thing of the past and as President Obama names a new Latin American team, that backward policy should be replaced with a much more attentive, proactive and effective approach. It is a simple proposition: We should be good to our friends. And, although we never want to create enemies, we should have the good sense to deal effectively with enemies wherever they appear.

Roger Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI.

 1 Mario Naranjo, "Venezuela's Chavez declareshimself free of cancer," Reuters, October 20, 2011, October 24, 2011)

2 Roger Noriega"Venezuela without Chávez" The Miami Herald, July 19, 2011,ávez.html(accessed October 8, 2011)

3 Jose Cardenas "TheReturn of South America's Narco-Generals," September 27, 2011 October 8, 2011)

4 Roger Noriega"Chávez Plans to Loot $29B in Venezuelan Reserves" August 16, 2011,ávez-plans-to-loot-29b-in-venezuelan-reserves/(accessed October 8, 2011)

5Roger Noriega "U.S. Must Prepare for aWorld Without Hugo Chávez" Fox News, September 29, 2011,ávez/#ixzz1aOLiSwxc(accessed October 8, 2011)

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