There appears little doubt that Venezuela's authoritarian President Hugo Chavez is in a very bad way when it comes to his health. The surest sign of his deepening personal crisis is that he denies it. He and his supporters consistently have downplayed the seriousness of his illness, only reluctantly acknowledged that it is some form of cancer, and repeatedly have claimed after every treatment in Cuba that the President is just fine and soon will be 100%. These are typical signs of an authoritarian regime in crisis: the truth must be dodged, or fed out only drop by drop as forced by events. It is also a sign of the poor state of oil-rich Venezuela's health system that after over eleven years of "Socialismo" the President goes to Cuba for treatment. We note, as an aside, that the ruling Nomenklatura of that oppressed island relies on European medicine--Spanish doctors, after all, had to save Fidel from the ministrations of Cuban doctors. Perhaps this is unfair since I don't know President Chavez's diagnosis, but he might die because he was too arrogant and pigheadedly anti-American to go to hospital in Houston.
In an excellent piece just published in The Americas Report, Luis Fleischman conducts an incisive "pre-postmortem" of Venezuela after the passing of the strong man from the scene. I won't try to paraphrase or summarize it as Fleischman makes a large number of excellent observations and it deserves a full reading. Read it. For me the biggest take away is that Fleischman reminds us all of something we tend to forget when we talk about dictators. There is no such thing as a "one-man regime." Even the most dominating personalities such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Pol Pot, Fidel, or the North Korean Kim dynasty did not rule alone. They required a structure of supporters, both individuals and institutions. Those supporters must get something for their support. One cannot rule by fear alone. There must be a carrot along with the stick. Even the most depraved regime will have its collection of true believers, sycophants, and opportunists who live relatively well thanks to The Great Man. The impending passing of The Great Man will see these supporters jockey to preserve the system which sustains them. That is the great question in Venezuela. Can the corruptocrats, the bought off union leaders and populists, and the military officers with their oil and drug connections preserve the system without Hugo? Can the current thuggish foreign or defense minister pull it off? One of Hugo's relatives, perhaps? Some general? What kind of reaction will we see from the Iranians, Cubans, Russians, Chinese, and other foreigners who have profited from Chavez's criminal regime? I, for one, do not know. There is a multiplicity of scenarios we could write.
As Fleischman notes, Spain after the death of its strongman, Francisco Franco, made a transition, at times rocky and uncertain, but in the end successfully to a parliamentary democracy with lively opposition press and parties. Spain, of course, benefitted from its prosperous and democratic neighborhood, which helped pressure the system's evolution in a democratic way. Spain also had, lest we forget, the respected, gutsy, and pro-democracy Juan Carlos as monarch who skillfully remained above little "p" politics while guiding the nation's capital "P" Politics in a democratic direction (NOTE: This is the same Juan Carlos who told Chavez to "shut up" at the 2007 Ibero-American Summit in Santiago.) That's not the case for Venezuela. Its neighbors are largely indifferent to the fate of democracy in Venezuela, and not willing to use what limited political and economic capital they have to influence events there. Many Latin American leaders, in fact, have been imitating Chavez, and using his notion of a slow-motion coup against democracy and free enterprise. The Venezuelan opposition has been, at least until very recently, seriously divided and unable to develop a compelling vision for the future of rich but poor Venezuela.
Other transition models--e..g, Iran after Khomeini, USSR after Stalin, China after Mao--also seem to hold out little hope that the passing of The Great Man will lead to democracy. In fact, the corruptocrats around Chavez might have another vision in their heads, Romania. Caracas is a very violent and unstable environment, and famous for its explosive outbursts of unrest. These corruptocrats certainly would do all they could to avoid the fate of Mr. and Mrs. Ceausescu. These are thugs who do not hesitate to pull the trigger or order others to do so.
One of the saddest aspects of what is happening in Venezuela is the virtual irrelevance of the USA. The Obama misadministration has so destroyed our influence in the region that nobody looks to see what Washington wants or listens to what it says.The passivity of the United States in the face of constant provocations and threats, and the US willingness to accept outrageous behavior from Chavez, Correa, Castro, and Morales does not go unnoticed in the region. We see Argentina slipping into the bad old ways of doing things; Peru is on the verge of going the Chavez route; El Salvador might follow; and our old friend Colombia is putting distance between itself and the Obama misadministration.
It seems that our foreign policy has developed a highly spiritual tone. We depend on God to take care of our enemies and our interests. I, however, was always taught that God helps those who help themselves. It's time we reinserted those pages into the hymnal used by the Obama misadministration, or, better yet, asked it to go back to Chicago. Unless we begin to help ourselves, even the passing of enemies such as Chavez (or Qaddafy or Assad) will not necessarily benefit our core interests, including the promotion of democracy and human rights.