At Large

Chavez’s Last Stand

Hugo Chavez is dying -- what does this mean for his scheduled October reelection?

By 4.20.12

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"Hugo Chavez has the constitution of a horse," said one Venezuelan official medical spokesman. If that's true, the horse is limping in the paddock. Flying back and forth from Caracas to Havana, Chavez already has had three operations (one exploratory) and accompanying radiation treatments. He's had two cancerous tumors removed -- one reportedly the size of a baseball -- from what has been described as "the pelvic area." He's not in the shape necessary to wage a vigorous campaign for his presidential reelection scheduled for this October. It would seem the Chavez era is in its final phase.

While some would like to tie the disastrous civil security situation of robbery, drug trafficking, murder and kidnapping to Hugo Chavez's absence from the scene of presidential authority, sources in the K&R (kidnapping and ransom) aspects of international insurance doubt that political connection. To them it's just business as usual in Venezuela. The Venezuelan law enforcement community dashes from one high profile case to another as diplomats and wealthy businessmen are targeted.

The reality is that even when Chavez was healthy, crime in Venezuela was endemic. The so-called "express kidnappings" in the past several years have become a trademark of criminal life in the cities as apparently well-to-do citizens are snatched off the streets. The victims are driven to appropriate bank cash machines and the money thus obtained becomes the instant ransom. Teams of bodyguards follow major businessmen and entertainment personalities everywhere, but it doesn't stop "the game."

The environment of civil insecurity, however, has become so bad since Chavez's indisposition that his loyalists now charge his opponents with inflating statistics and manufacturing crime stories in order to aid their own election prospects. Naturally this is denied, but it is obvious that anti-Chavez forces enjoy the timing of any increased breakdown of law and order.

The first operation for the removal of Chavez's tumor was treated as an unfortunate but not atypical health problem for a man of his age. The second operation of a smaller, but still cancerous, tumor carries an entirely different political tone. That there has been a blackout on any discussion of the exact nature of the cancer -- other than to say it was in the pelvic region -- has only encouraged speculation. Advanced prostate cancer is the current leader of the speculative list. It certainly does not look optimistic for Chavez's political, or any other, future.

Hugo Chavez has several close friends from his Army days on whom he counts for his regime's political and physical protection. They find themselves in the unenviable position of having to fill in while the boss is hors de combat. Chavez had done an effective job of instructing his back-up team before his first major surgery, but this last time has been less well organized. The problem is that the reelection campaign is full upon Chavez's supporters. His most trusted lieutenants tend to find overwhelming the handling of those issues as well as running a government beset by waves of criminality in the streets, offices, and homes.

Undoubtedly Chavez will do all he can to remain in power and his illness may produce an outpouring of sympathy that will overwhelm the usual partisanship in Venezuelan politics. One can be sure, however, that behind locked doors of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is a vigorous discussion of how to deal with alternatives arising from President Chavez's health problem. The need for creating solutions for several scenarios involving recovery, convalescence, continued indisposition, etc. during the period leading up to the election in October is currently a matter of priority consideration, to say the least.

Leading the race of opposition figures to replace Hugo Chavez is the youthful and athletic 39-year-old governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles. While still polling far behind Chavez, Capriles has captured the attention of the entire range of opposition groups and now provides a striking alternative to the ailing and prematurely aging socialist leader. As the months progress, Chavez's inability to keep up with the "new boy on the block" will become even more apparent.

If Chavez should physically falter, his left-wing mantle will be picked up by one of his compadres who have served with him during the past 13 years. One of the leading PSUV candidates is Diosdado Cabello, now minister of Housing and Public Affairs as well as head of the Venezuelan Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL). The latter position provides Cabello with considerable leverage in electioneering. The fact that his brother heads the Venezuelan internal revenue service doesn't hurt either.

Under Chavez Venezuela has become a benefactor to many anti-U.S. elements around the world. Countries from Latin America to Africa have come to count on his very personalized aid programs. Chavez's departure from active politics will have an international effect, something that Iran and even Russia will find disadvantageous. The die is cast, however. Hugo Chavez is playing out his final act -- if not scene.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.