Shadow Government

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Preparing for a post-Hugo Venezuela

With drips and drabs of information, Hugo Chávez is slowly informing the world that he is seriously ill. After finally admitting he has cancer, this week he said he may be undergoing either chemotherapy or radiation treatment over the next few months. While still unknown is what type of cancer he has or the prognosis, ...

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

With drips and drabs of information, Hugo Chávez is slowly informing the world that he is seriously ill. After finally admitting he has cancer, this week he said he may be undergoing either chemotherapy or radiation treatment over the next few months.

While still unknown is what type of cancer he has or the prognosis, it seems safe to assume that his medical condition will certainly impair his ability to continue governing Venezuela as before.

Indeed, all indications are he is huddling today with his Cuban advisors to lay the groundwork for a succession to ensure the survival of Chavismo without its loquacious founder.

With drips and drabs of information, Hugo Chávez is slowly informing the world that he is seriously ill. After finally admitting he has cancer, this week he said he may be undergoing either chemotherapy or radiation treatment over the next few months.

While still unknown is what type of cancer he has or the prognosis, it seems safe to assume that his medical condition will certainly impair his ability to continue governing Venezuela as before.

Indeed, all indications are he is huddling today with his Cuban advisors to lay the groundwork for a succession to ensure the survival of Chavismo without its loquacious founder.

Vice President Elias Jaua, a Chávez (and Fidel Castro) loyalist, is officially next in line of succession, but he is a colorless apparatchik whom no one considers to be the long-term answer. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, another slavish Chávez acolyte, is similarly not seen as a viable replacement.

Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, two powerful figures lurking in the shadows, are Chavistas to the core, but both have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for facilitating narcotics trafficking through Venezuela, disqualifying either from post-Hugo political office. Still, they have the power to make or break Hugo’s successor — and they definitely have the will, given their vulnerability to U.S. legal action if the wrong person replaces Hugo.

Also circling about is an ambitious but corrupt cohort of former government officials that includes national assemblyman Diosdado Cabello (a former vice president), José Vicente Rangel (a former Vice President), and Jesse Chacón (a former minister of the presidency). They are crafty and formidable operators, but their conspicuous venality, and their untrustworthiness as deemed by the Cubans because of their independent thinking, make them non-starters. They nevertheless should be watched. 

Thus, the only one who appears to have the best chance of keeping this motley collection of thuggish characters in check and carrying on Chavismo without Hugo is his older brother Adán .

Adán Chávez, 15 months Hugo’s senior, is no stranger to radical left-wing politics. As far back as the early 1980s, he was involved in conspiracies to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Fervently Marxist and pro-Castro, he has served as education minister and ambassador to Cuba and currently serves as governor of Barinas state. He is known as an ideologue through and through.

According to a Wikileaks cable, Chávez confides in only two people: Adán and Fidel Castro.

In late June, Adán made international headlines when he told government supporters that, while they prefer to maintain power through the ballot box, they should not rule out armed struggle if the need arises.

The benediction of Adán already seems to be underway. During Hugo’s mysterious stay in Cuba (undergoing surgery), officials floundered about trying to explain Hugo’s absence. It was Adán who appeared to be the best informed about what was going on. Also, when Hugo returned to Venezuela, Adán was the only other political figure to appear with him on the balcony of the presidential palace to greet his supporters.

Adán ‘s problem is that he lacks charisma like the others, but his all-important bloodlines will likely trump that deficiency (much like the dour Raúl has become the titular leader of the decrepit Castro regime in Cuba). The Cubans will make sure of that.

Moreover, also backing Adán will be a rogues’ gallery of international stakeholders that have profited immensely from Chávez’s largesse. They will also be pushing not only for maintaining the status quo, but the continuation of Chavismo through the 2012 elections. In addition to Cuba, these also include Russia, China, and Iran (including Hezbollah).

What this means for the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. interests will be the subject of future blogs, but, for now, all eyes should be on the political machinations in Caracas that will determine Chavismo‘s foreseeable future.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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