Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is back in his homeland after a stay in Cuba to receive treatment for an unspecified form of cancer.
Chavez arrived just in time for Venezuela’s July 5 Independence Day celebrations, although his role may be limited somewhat by his recent surgery to remove cancer cells. Unconfirmed reports from Venezuela have the actual parades and celebrations moving to July 7 this year, to give Chavez a little more time to recover and regain his strength, further fueling rumours that his cancer is serious and may have required chemotherapy as part of the treatment.
Chavez’s cancer and the secrecy behind it highlights something important about the Venezuelan political system, in that it is almost entirely dependent on Chavez and his popularity right now. His leftist policies and willingness to stand up to American power make him a populist force to be reckoned with in the region, and with roughly 3% of the world’s daily oil production tucked into his economy (11th in the world), he has the economic heft to back up his words.
The illness forces analysts to stop and wonder: what happens if Chavez is gone tomorrow? Chavez so overwhelms the Venezuelan political scene that no one is, at the moment, able to step into his shoes and be as large a figurehead, either nationally or internationally.
It’s a lot like the questions facing Apple and where that company will go if and when Steve Jobs steps down for good. Of course, Apple’s fans are unlikely to take to the streets in protest if some next generation of iPod isn’t as imaginative or transformative as something Jobs might have created.
Still, the same underlying premise is there: Venezuela’s oil-producing economy became the powerhouse it is because of policies Chavez pushed. If he’s gone, does Venezuela slide back into irrelevancy, or does a new leadership team take the country even higher?
Let’s look at the worst case scenario for Venezuela. While his party could remain in control, there is also the possibility that a more right-wing government could emerge next, particularly if a successor does not become apparent in the coming months. Warring factions could split the left and possibly divide the populace, opening up a path for a more right-wing, business-friendly candidate to emerge.
If you thought the buyer’s remorse was bad in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, a right-wing government elected in Venezuela would make them look like amateurs. Protests in the street, rioting, and a major disruption of the Venezuelan economy could easily take place. Their oil production could get completely shut down if the country completely lost its grip, in particular if the military sides with the government against the people. It could get ugly.
Then again, the President-for-life could step down ahead of any downturn in his health, and/or he could appoint (unofficially) a replacement, grooming him or her to take on his role as part-leader, part-shaman for the Venezuelan poor. He could, essentially, oversee a sensible transfer of power from himself to another left-leaning candidate, stabilizing the government and, importantly for us, keep the oil flowing.
— John Thorpe
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