Venezuelans are facing a tumultuous year ahead that could bring an end to 13 years of authoritarian populism under cancer-stricken caudillo Hugo Chávez or make matters worse. The opposition is waiting for a showdown in presidential elections set for Oct. 7. But the real struggle for power has already begun, and a corrupt Chavista cadre has seized the advantage and will seek to hold on to power by any means necessary.
Desperate to crush his opponents in elections this fall, Chávez has been deceiving himself and the Venezuelan people about his terminal cancer, discovered last June in his prostate, lymphatic system, colon and bones. Sources close to his medical team tell me that Chávez's refusal to submit to intensive treatment in favor of homeopathic remedies, coupled with his abuse of cocaine and steroids to enhance his stamina, has hindered efforts to save his life.
After he collapsed twice in five days last month, he was forced to admit the need for more surgery. Chávez's doctors hope to slow the aggressive cancer by removing a 5-centimeter cancerous tumor from his colon before trying additional chemotherapy. Meanwhile, they have yet to adequately treat the dangerous cancer growing in his bones. The irony is that his obsession with appearing healthy has taken a terrible toll, and an active campaign schedule in the months ahead would be a suicide mission.
Some of Chávez's inner circle may hold out hope that he can remain on the ballot, and they have every reason to believe that they can engineer a victory. However, if Chávez dies in the next few months or if an electoral outcome is in doubt, they will find another way to keep power.
It might be argued that a narco-coup already is under way. The elevation of notorious narco-general Henry Rangel Silva, whom the U.S. Treasury designated a drug kingpin in 2008, to minister of defense gives him political clout and command of troops. The appointment of Chávez confidante and military man Diosdado Cabello to head the ruling party and the National Assembly is a Soviet-style maneuver to consolidate power. Placing these corrupt, ruthless men in key posts is meant to reassure narco-military leaders who will never forfeit the impunity of power.
Nevertheless, a power struggle within Chavismo is likely. The current vice president Elias Jaua, has grown used to wielding power and thinks he is best suited to manage Venezuela's problems. Trained in Cuba, Jaua has the backing of the Castro regime, which engineered Cabello's ouster years ago and fears that he might cut off essential aid and oil. With thousands of Cuban spies, bureaucrats and triggermen in Venezuela today, Havana will exert its influence. Chávez's pal, Nicolas Maduro, and Chávez's brother, Adan, were being groomed for power before being muscled aside by Cabello and Rangel Silva.
Jose Vicente Rangel, a Machiavellian character who rushed back to the center of power only after he discovered that Chávez is dying, is desperate to broker a deal between Chavismo and the opposition that will put him in a lucrative position. All of these protagonists are plotting their next moves with military leaders who are uneasy about being pariahs of a narco-state.
This power-struggle is happening as the opposition bides its time. These democrats are justifiably proud of turning out three million voters in a primary last month. The 39-year-old governor of Miranda, Henrique Capriles Radonski, won a decisive victory, and his rivals have closed ranks around him.
This united, energized opposition points to successful national assembly elections in September 2010 as a measure of their strength. Because Chávez is faltering, the economy is collapsing and crime is soaring, they believe their chances of winning a fair electoral contest are better than ever. Capriles may surprise observers by finding a way to appeal to the very poor citizens who are 70-80 percent of the electorate and may be orphaned by Chávez's death. That may not matter much if he is unprepared for the bare-knuckles power-struggle that might scuttle the elections.
Although the United States and Venezuela's regional neighbors appear distant observers of this dramatic struggle, Cuba, Iran, China and Russia are protagonists defending their interests. Beijing and Moscow are weighing whether to pump billions into Venezuela to aid Chávez's campaign. And Iran and a host of terrorist groups and narco-traffickers are determined to preserve their safe haven.
Chávez's death will leave even more sinister forces at work near our shores. If we work with our allies in the Americas, we may be able to apply discreet but decisive pressure to manage the meltdown in Venezuela.
Roger Noriega is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.