Argument

If Hugo Goes

If Hugo Goes

See a slide show of our favorite photos of El Presidente.

Until now, the most frequently asked question about Hugo Chávez’s virtually one-man rule in Venezuela was whether he would be prepared to relinquish power if he lost an election. That question has become even more germane in view of next year’s presidential contest, as El Presidente faces a country arguably in worse shape than at any moment since his regime began a dozen years ago.

Today, however, another crucial question — one that has seldom been posed — looms: What would happen if Chávez were incapacitated and unable to serve as president? What if he died while in office? Who would succeed him? How would a successor be chosen?

The current mystery surrounding the usually omnipresent and glib 56-year-old former paratrooper has given rise to such questions. Since June 10, Chávez has been hospitalized in Havana, Cuba. Senior Venezuelan sources reported that Chávez had surgery on a pelvic abscess. A spokesman now says he plans to return to Caracas by July 5 — just in time for Venezuela’s bicentennial, when Chávez is scheduled to host a major gathering of Latin American and Caribbean leaders.

Yet rumors and speculation about Chávez’s condition and intentions abound. Reports from Havana have been few and far between and lacking in any detail. Some believe Chávez is actually as fit as ever, but is relishing being the center of attention and is getting ready for a return to cheering throngs. Others cite last week’s declarations of Venezuela’s foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, that Chávez is "fighting for his health" and reports that his daughter and grandchildren visited him in Havana; they are convinced that his condition is far more serious than the public has been led to believe.

Whatever theory turns out to be correct, Chávez’s first prolonged absence from the reins of power suggests just how precarious Venezuela’s institutions now are. It also shows the extent to which the country relies on his arbitrary rule. True, the 1999 Constitution says that the country’s vice president should take over in the event that the president becomes incapacitated. But few can imagine strict adherence to rules — certainly not in an era when Chávez has basically rewritten the book at his fancy — not to mention it’s hard to see the nondescript Elías Jaua succeeding the president.

Instead, within the broad movement — some might call it a sensibility — known as Chavismo that underpins Chávez’s ongoing Bolivarian revolution, it is almost certain that a fierce power struggle would ensue. In fact, the maneuvering has already started. On Sunday, June 26, Chávez’s elder brother, Adán, currently governor of their home state of Barinas, garnered attention for suggesting that "as authentic revolutionaries," Venezuelans could indeed use "other methods of struggle," including "the armed struggle," to ensure continuity in government. It’s an ominous sign of battles to come within Chavismo.

Absent the charismatic president — who has established a bond with, and still inspires faith among, many poor Venezuelans (polls show he retains nearly 50 percent support) — there is a complete vacuum of political leadership. During the course of Chávez’s rule, power has become concentrated in his hands. In many cases, such as removing term limits, measures were carried out in accordance with the Constitution, through referenda. But other decisions aimed at stripping elected officials of their authority were pursued through decree and were the result of more dubious democratic procedures.

Chávez’s penchant for riding roughshod over institutions such as the courts and his disdain for the rule of law (as detailed by Human Rights Watch and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) have meant that few real constraints and checks remain on his authority. To be fair, Venezuela’s politics were profoundly flawed before Chávez came on the scene, but there was at least some respect for the country’s institutions. Personalistic rule was far less pronounced.

Indeed, in true caudillo (strongman) fashion, Chávez has presented himself as Venezuela’s savior, the only man able to stand up to powerful economic and political interests within the country and abroad — especially the United States, invariably referred to as the imperio, or empire — and redress historical social injustices. He alone makes all the decisions down to the most mundane level, with the firm conviction that he embodies the will of the people. Having defeated three opponents for the presidency in 1998, 2000, and 2006 — and having won a 2009 national referendum that removes term limits — Chávez appears intent on clinging to power.

Governance under Chávez has been disastrous. Despite the ample resources at his disposal — the country is a major petroleum producer, and high oil prices have subsidized massive social programs — Chávez has amassed a terrible record. Not only has oil production dropped dramatically, but inflation, at 30 percent, is the highest in Latin America. Recent electricity shortages have aggravated an already acute economic situation, heightening public anxiety. And crime has been out of control.

Nothing more compellingly illustrates Venezuela’s governance failures than the current crisis with the country’s prisons. Attention has focused on the highly overcrowded Rodeo I and Rodeo II jails, just outside Caracas, where prison riots and an ongoing standoff between thousands of National Guard troops and heavily armed inmates has resulted in 25 deaths since June 12. The prison system in Venezuela — plagued by human rights abuses and overcrowding — has long been a serious problem, but it has deteriorated during the Chávez years, reflecting the government’s sheer incompetence. Recent journalistic accounts have detailed the extent to which the drug trade and organized crime have become integral to prison life.

Perhaps of greatest concern, the Chávez era has seen the emergence of a society marked by unprecedented levels of polarization and rancor. Chávez exudes the mentality that you’re either with us or against us. In a key industry like petroleum, which has become more and more politicized, competent, technically trained professionals have left in huge numbers. Restoring some measure of political comity and sound economic management and performance will not be easy.

Unsurprisingly, the regime’s opponents have taken matters into their own hands, acquiring weapons to protect themselves from government-backed militias mobilized by Chávez as an added layer of defense against internal threats — in case the armed forces were to not carry out a command. The tense situation increases the chances that an eventual change in government could be accompanied by some violence.

The opposition, having sensed that Chávez is no longer invincible, has been gearing up for next year’s presidential election. In February 2012, they intend to select their candidate in an open primary to challenge Chávez. Potential contenders include two governors, Henrique Capriles and Pablo Pérez, and the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma.

Most analysts agree, however, that Chávez has the upper hand and would probably win a vote taken today. But the opposition, though of varied political tendencies, is now united in its effort to defeat Chávez, and in fact have an electoral strategy to do so: rally behind a single candidate, offer more effective social policies than what’s in place now, and focus on appealing to moderate Chavistas who may be amenable to backing the opposition.

For now, though, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of Chávez. He’s signing laws from his hospital bed in Havana; he seems to still be using Twitter. When he returns, expect thousands of his supporters to greet him with cheers and celebrations. Whether that support will last until next year’s elections — and whether it will be enough to get him reelected — is another matter.

But Venezuelans are right to be apprehensive: The stark political uncertainty highlighted by the current episode makes many — Chavistas and anti-Chavistas alike — concerned for the future of their country. However ill the president may be and whether or not he fully recovers, it is clear that there is no plan for succession. And a political vacuum in a polarized, economically troubled, highly armed, institutionless country like Chávez’s Venezuela is a recipe for trouble.