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.

Finally, regardless of whether the party and the opposition are able to maintain unity, the Chavez regime severely damaged the institutions of democratic rule. Neither the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable nor the government party, the United Socialist Party, are well institutionalised. Electoral rules, courts and the legislature have all been weakened, skewed or rendered ineffective in the past 15 years. Critical areas of economic policymaking and budgeting have been centralised in the office of the president and key areas of social policy converted into instruments of presidential relations with society. Behind it all was the considerable charismatic presence and authority of Hugo Chavez. Rebuilding genuine democratic governance in the wake of Chavez will have to happen on the back of broken institutional infrastructure. Doing so in the face of badly polarised politics and serious economic and social challenges will make it that much harder. Life after Chavez may be difficult as the country struggles to re-establish political order and tackle a host of challenges that have been left untended for too long.

In contrast, Venezuela's foreign relations, with the US and the rest of the region, may not change much. Chavez has routinely criticised successive American administrations, worked to build an anti-US bloc (ALBA) in the region, and developed strong ties with Iran. A post-Chavista regime in Venezuela may abandon all three foreign policy planks, although a post-Chavez Chavista regime might continue to pursue them. In either event, Latin America rarely ranks high on US foreign policy concerns. Indeed, US neglect, even of allies, potential allies and opportunities to build constructive relations, is a near constant. The US would welcome a shift in Venezuela's tone and policy but it is unlikely to be terribly important either way.

This lack of urgency is because Chavez's influence in the region was waning without US effort and before Chavez became ill. ALBA, for all the initial hype, has not emerged as a strong voice against the US and has held little appeal for most of the region. Chavez's allies, such as Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, are struggling with their own economic problems and declining popularity. Other one-time or possible allies, like the FLMN in El Salvador or Ollanta Humala in Peru, have explicitly rejected ALBA and its oppositional tone. Probably the biggest beneficiary in the region of Venezuela post-Chavez is Brazil. Brazil's record of solid growth with strong social gains is the compelling alternative to Chavez's development model of oil-revenue financed, macroeconomically unstable, poor economic performance. Brazil quietly invested in increased presence and influence across the region, avoiding open disputes with Venezuela. Post-Chavez Venezuela is likely to be even less appealing as a model for emulation. Again, this outcome would be welcome for the US, which has come to see Brazil as the key interlocutor in the Americas. Brazil has important policy and philosophical differences with the US, but relations are certainly easier. Venezuela has already seen its influence on the decline in the region, offset by rising Brazilian leadership. A post-Chavez Venezuela is likely to accelerate that trend.

Peter Kingstone is professor, co-director at the Institute for International Development at King's College, London,

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