Chavez, No Longer Such a Strongman

Hugo Chavez is no longer Venezuela’s strongman (“hombre fuerte”). With the announcement that he is battling some kind of cancer (and that either radiation or chemotherapy will be necessary), Chavez’s human frailties have been revealed. For his many adoring supporters in particular, that has been a terrible blow and has exploded the sense of Chavez’s immortality.

Though his prognosis remains unclear, it is certain that Chavez does not enjoy the good health and energy that has marked his more than 12-year rule as Venezuela’s nearly ubiquitous president. His ability to govern has already been manifestly impaired and his capacity to campaign for reelection next year is in considerable doubt.

To be sure, Chavez is doing his best to project strength and resilience, as reflected in some video clips of him exercising. With characteristic drama, Chavez, drawing from Friederich Nietzch’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, said in a Twitter message, “I find myself before my highest mountain and my longest walk.” He has sought to enlist the entire nation in his struggle against cancer, declaring, “We’ve begun to climb the hill. We’ve begun to beat the illness inside of my body.”

But Chavez’s illness has left a power void and has exposed the fragility of his one-man rule. It is clear that others in Chavez’s movement and party do not know what to say or do without clear direction from El Presidente.

Although some in the narrowing inner circle, such as Chavez’s older brother Adan and vice president Elias Jaua, have emerged and are jockeying for position in what is bound to be an increasingly fierce power struggle, no one else even remotely commands Chavez’s authority. And, as he showed upon his return to Caracas from Havana, Chavez’s magical, popular touch and charisma remain intact.

Chavez’s illness and physical limitations will inevitably compound his already serious political problems in Venezuela. The deterioration in the country’s economic and security conditions – crime, in particular, is out of control -- are ample proof of dismal governance and a system that depends on one person to make all decisions. The high levels of polarization and rancor make the situation that much more ominous.

It is hard to imagine that the decline will be reversed before the election. The news of Chavez’s illness has understandably generated a lot of compassion and sympathy, but the political effect is unlikely to last beyond a few months at most.

Ultimately, the country’s condition will be decisive in the presidential vote. So far the opposition has reacted prudently, but its ability to remain united and focused on coming up with solutions to Venezuela’s myriad problems will be severely tested in the coming months. Chavez, after all, has been the glue that has held them together, in their shared determination to defeat him. Some in the opposition could be encouraged by Chavez’s weakness and be tempted to pursue their separate ambitions.

Fidel and Raul Castro are no doubt acutely aware of and worried about the uncertainties surrounding the Chavez regime. Chavez’s surprise return from Havana on July 3 was probably decided at their urging and was aimed at showing his supporters that he was still in charge and control.

Beyond the Venezuelans who have profited from the regime’s largesse over the past dozen years, the Cubans (and, to a lesser degree, the other ALBA countries) have the most to lose with a possible end of Chavez’s rule. It is doubtful that any other Venezuelan president would continue to supply Cuba – which is in dire economic straits – with 100,000 barrels of oil each day. While most analysts believe cutting off Venezuela’s subsidy would not necessarily mean the crash of the Cuban economy, its effects would no doubt be great.

Chavez, intent on holding on to power for as long as possible, has recalled Fidel’s warning during his stay in Cuba that he needs to play a more hands-off role in his management of Venezuela. As he said in a TV telephone interview on July 13, “Chavez can’t be the mayor of all of Venezuela. That was another era. I must learn to delegate.”

True enough, but old habits die hard, and it may be too late for that. Delegating power and authority has not been Chavez’s strength throughout his military and political career. On the contrary, he has increasingly concentrated power in his own hands, that today has meant a huge political vacuum and enormous uncertainty. That, after all, is the nature – and consequences -- of strongman rule.

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