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What Happens Next in Venezuela?

What Happens Next in Venezuela?

Much of the speculation following Hugo Chávez’s admission this week that he wasn’t miraculously cured of cancer and must return to Cuba for more surgery has centered on the impact his failing health will have on Venezuela’s presidential elections scheduled for this October.

What happens if an incapacitated Chávez wins? Or, will a dying Chávez’s anointing of a successor succeed in overcoming a unified and energized opposition for the first time in a decade? Or, will voters, burdened by declining economic conditions and rising crime, opt for a new direction in the face of the uncertainty surrounding Chávez and the lack of a legitimate standard-bearer for his movement?

All legitimate questions. Yet a better question to ask is whether there will be an election at all if Chávez succumbs to his illness before October — and whether the Obama administration is prepared for an interruption of the democratic order in Venezuela if hard-line Chavistas see their political fortunes going south.

Such a scenario is hardly far-fetched considering a series of personnel moves by Chávez in December that scrambled the slate of possible civilian successors, but saw two controversial and well-known hard-line military loyalists placed in key positions.

The first, Diosdado Cabello, a notoriously corrupt former military colleague of Chávez — he joined Chávez in his 1992 coup attempt — who had been marginalized in recent years, was rehabilitated and appointed head of the National Assembly. His military rank was restored as well, even though Venezuelan law states that an acting military officer cannot serve in the legislature. Cabello is known as a ruthless, extremely savvy operator, and hardly one to be considerate of democratic niceties.

The second controversial appointment was the elevation of another loyalist, General Henry Rangel Silva, to Minister of Defense. Rangel Silva, who also joined Chávez in his failed 1992 coup, was designated by the U.S. government in 2008 as a co-conspirator with the Colombian narco-terrorist FARC in shipping drugs through Venezuela to the U.S. and other markets. He is one of a cohort of Venezuelan narco-generals implicated by U.S. authorities.

Rangel Silva’s other bout with notoriety came in 2010, when he publicly stated he was wedded to Chávez’s political project and said that the Venezuelan military would not recognize an opposition electoral victory in 2012.

In short, both individuals are eminently capable of kicking over the table if they see their prospects for staying in power frittering away. Neither they nor the other narco-generals are not about to risk the impunity they now enjoy should the opposition appear to be gaining significant ground among the Venezuelan electorate heading into October.

Nor are they the only ones with a considerable interest in the survival of Chavismo without Chávez. Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran have all developed quite lucrative and beneficial relations with Chávez, his oil riches, and his unaccountable spending. Any of them certainly would be untroubled, to put it mildly, by any actions that preserved their privileged access to Venezuelan oil and/or petro-dollars.

That leaves the United States as the only player left capable of mobilizing a multinational effort to defend the democratic process in Venezuela should conditions radically deteriorate. You can bet everyone mentioned above is busy gaming out what happens next in Venezuela; the question is, are we?