Coping without Chavez

Hugo Chavez, the charismatic, quasi-authoritarian president who has dominated the Venezuelan political scene since the late 1990s, has disappeared from view. Shrouded under layers of gossip and misinformation, Chavez's absence has triggered inevitable questions about when and whether he'll recover. It is worth considering what a post-Chavez scenario holds for Venezuela and its impact on larger regional dynamics. For domestic politics, Chavez's exit is likely to produce momentous change. On the international front, it is not clear that that much will change.

Domestically, the worst-case scenario is that the country suffers terribly, riven by factions both exacerbated by and exacerbating over a decade's worth of economic and social decay. Three factors will influence how Venezuelan politics unfolds post-Chavez.

First, it is not clear how effectively Chavista leaders will be able to hold together the Bolivarian movement in his absence. Chavez chose Nicolas Maduro, his vice-president, as successor, but Maduro has neither the charismatic nor the institutional authority that Chavez wielded so effectively. He faces other prominent Chavez allies who can emerge as leadership contenders. For example, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the national assembly, is constitutionally supposed to become interim president if Chavez cannot take office. Cabello is an obvious candidate for leadership of the movement post Chavez. If the movement does splinter around multiple factions and leaders, it will be hard-pressed to continue to dominate domestic politics or promote an orderly power transition.

Second, one factor that could help the party is that the opposition has rarely been able to unify around a common leader. The 2012 elections featured the most effective rallying of the opposition to date, around the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles. A single standard-bearer helped the opposition gain substantially in the legislature (though it did not perform as well in critical gubernatorial elections). A unified opposition could mobilise support for a smooth transition to power or be an effective negotiating partner with the Chavistas. But its track record does not offer much assurance.

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