By Robert Valencia
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spent a long absence from his country in Cuba earlier last year, opponents and sympathizers alike wondered about his future as his nation’s undisputed commander in chief. But mounting speculations about the exact nature and implications of his ailment proliferated. Later, it began to circulate that Chávez was suffering from an advanced case of colon cancer after information was made public by the Spanish media. After his health circumstances became known, Chávez pledged to the nation that he would continue ruling Venezuela “until 2031.” In fact, he boasted that he would consider the years between 2020 and 2030 to be his “golden decade.”
The question now is whether Chávez was just being waggish or whether he realizes that his ultimate fate is not necessarily in his hands. Many experts are asking whether Chávez’s health will permit him to keep the Bolivarian Revolution nimble, with some arguing that Chávez won’t be able to accomplish all of his visions. This is because he may have “only…two years to live,” and he may be physically unable to run for the presidency, possibly even for the 2012 electoral cycle.
Indeed, Chávez’s current health condition has fostered many questions about the expectations of his left-leaning constituency in Venezuela, a cohort that already has presented some socioeconomic problems to his leadership within the country’s widely accepted ideological bounds, some of these had helped spawn no shortage of previous diplomatic blunders and triumphs abroad. The country’s traditional concerns for the poor have centered on whether the delivery of promised benefits would continue rather than be aborted by a precipitous oil earnings. Nevertheless, a rabidly anti-Chávez Wall Street Journal, insisted that his cure for Venezuela’s past and current maladies has always been for Chávez to “deepen the socialist revolution: socialism, socialism and more socialism. We have to deepen the struggle and defeat the vices of the past that still persist among us: violence, insecurity, corruption, selfishness, individualism.”
The Latin American left has at least one thing in common: ensuring that these countries—where the movement is in ascendency—should foster their own societies’ destinies so as to not to be dependent on an all-powerful Washington, as in the past. But some of the most notable differences now to be seen are countries such as moderate left-leaning Brazil, which is at least being looked upon by its neighbors as a model of prosperity and fiscal discipline. Yet, could the region’s future could be the evolution of those kind of progressive societies rather than Venezuela and its swashbuckling leader. For some, this represents a far less wrenching experience than having Venezuela as the hotly pursued model. But Chávez is seemingly intent on seeking to retrofit the Cuban model on Venezuelan soil, just as Havana appears to be scrapping much of the system that simply did not work. Case in point: the Bolivarian Revolution, which unquestionably has gravitated around the figure of Chávez, has no viable rival or logical successors challenging the president. Chávez is no pushover, but a formidable foe, even if wide grasp and significant regional role includes familiarity with agribusiness, financial, construction, oil, and steel. Chávez’s role model and exemplar Fidel Castro, in turn, appears to rely upon his brother Raúl, who is currently at the helm of the island which he is rapidly transforming into a modern society, even though Washington refuses to acknowledge this. For his part, and in light of his serious illness, Chávez, at least temporarily, has granted some authority that was given to Vice President Elías Jaua, even though the Venezuelan president has retaken some of the powers that had been shifted at the height of his cancer scare.
As a result of Chávez’s medical problems, the Venezuelan opposition sees itself sitting on a political goldmine. For as long as it can be remembered, the opposition has been unable to coalesce into a unified bloc with a charismatic leader capable of challenging Chávez’s enormous clout in poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas. It possibly had its best prospects with the prospective candidate of renowned newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff in 2006, but even though he was at first a supporter of Chávez and then turned against him, he eventually decided to support Manuel Rosales who, in the end, was not able to present a credible threat to Chávez’s tenure. Last month, a number of the opposition candidates participated in a televised debate, precisely aimed at stitching the country’s disparate forces together under the unified banner of the Coalition of Democratic Unity. The participants  include Zulia state’s Governor Pablo Pérez Álvarez, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, and María Corina Machado, who was the founder of the anti-Chávez group known as Súmate, who won her anti-Chávez spurs by being a prominent leader of the golpista faction that attempted a failed coup against Chávez in 2002. This time, the opposition was not able to aim much of a visceral attack at Chávez, but rather chose to tackle such national problems including the questions of security, employment, and education, while stepping up attacks against the increasing drug trade and very high crime rates assailing the country.
Indeed, the Chávez administration has long experienced a slew of controversial societal pressures, such as hyperinflation, the need to reform the judicial system, and issues surrounding the expropriation of lands and private enterprise. These have played out against a backdrop of increased insecurity and unprecedented crime levels common throughout Latin America. But such bad news barely seems to have affected his popularity ratings. According to the Instituto Venezolano de Analisis de Data (IVAD), President Chávez has an approval rating of 71.5 percent, and if elections were to take place today, he would defeat leading opposition figure, in this case Capriles Radonski, 55.5 percent to 31.8 percent.
Things also seem to be running as usual for Chávez in the realms of regional and international diplomacy. Two of his strongest allies in Latin America, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, won impressive victories in their respective elections. Furthermore, the bilateral relations between Bogotá and Caracas have significantly improved under Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, in a setting that produced nothing short of heartburn for the former president of Colombia—and Chávez’s nemesis—Álvaro Uribe.
Chávez’s illness has not deterred him from displaying his contempt for the White House, and, in particular, his passion for his perennial project of strengthening other Latin American countries’ determination to organize Latin America into a mainly leftist bloc viscerally opposed to Washington. In a recent interview with El Universal, President Chávez called President Barack Obama a “clown” for his criticism of Venezuela’s ties with Cuba and Iran and his allegations that Chávez is threatening basic democratic values—and he even went on to say that the United States gave cancer to him and other South American leaders. Meanwhile, Chávez took the initiative of responding by hosting the first conference of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños – CELAC) in December, which pointedly excluded the United States from its membership roster. He then surprised the rest of the hemisphere by managing to travel to Uruguay for a MERCOSUR summit—his first trip abroad after being diagnosed with cancer—where he kept up his efforts to enter the trade bloc.
Without a doubt, Venezuela’s destiny remains under the effective control of President Chávez, who’s popularity and demeanor never seem to falter. The hefty pay raise he has just given the armed forces is scheduled to buy a lot of loyalty in the military, but is this scenario what makes for a revolutionary society? Things certainly could spin out of his control, partly due to the huge variable of his day-to-day health. Furthermore, Venezuela remains a ticking time bomb as today’s hyperinflation batters the economy and basic food items become selectively scarce, particularly if the world price of oil weakens.
While the opposition will have little success in trying to convince Venezuelans outside of the middle class that Chávez will eventually mean totalitarianism for the country, the Venezuelan president must realize that his Bolivarian Revolution is genuinely seen by many of his countrymen as a threat to free and independent institutions, and that his sometimes heavy-handed rule could lead to a robust comeback by his foes. This is not entirely out of the question if Chávez fails to respect the spirit of the law, let alone its letter.
Robert Valencia, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs