José R. Cárdenas served in several foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration (2004-2009), including on the National Security Council staff. He is a consultant with Vision Americas in Washington, DC.
The May 2012 issue of the venerable Jane’s Intelligence Review features an interesting and in-depth analysis of the political situation in Venezuela leading up to October’s presidential election and beyond. It takes as its starting point that the mystery regarding the severity of Hugo Chávez’s illness indicates that the months ahead are unlikely to be smooth. It then posits various scenarios for the possible course of events, systematically assessing how Venezuela’s stability across a range of fronts will be influenced by whatever direction those events take.
Jane’s concedes that the lack of official transparency about Chávez’s health complicates any effort to predict outcomes. That same obfuscation, however, raises the destabilization factor: the lack of a succession plan has led to Chávez’s PSUV party being “riven with factional divisions” — primarily breaking down along military and civilian lines.
The individual to watch is Diosdado Cabello, currently head of the National Assembly and a former Chávez military colleague. Jane’sbelieves he is the military’s preferred candidate. On the civilian side, the President’s brother, Adán, a true-blue Marxist and governor of Barinas, is thought to be favored by the Castros.
Complicating matters further is that Chávez over the past decade has so politicized the military and tolerated so much corruption that it has made the military as an institution “inherently more unstable and unpredictable.” Not helping matters are the number of armed militias prowling the country that answer only to Chávez, which could prove to be another destabilizing factor.
Another variable is Cuba, whose ties to the Chávez government Jane’scalls “the most important external relationship that has a bearing on the current and future risk situation in Venezuela.” Given the Castro regime’s precarious economic situation and its extensive intelligence and political ties to Venezuela, it is easy to assume it will take every action to ensure its preferential economic relationship with Venezuela is not threatened.
Against this backdrop, Jane’s offers three possible scenarios that could define Venezuela’s future in the coming months, assessing the likelihood of each and discussing how they could impact Venezuela’s stability across several fronts: political, economic, social, military/security, and externally.
Scenario one (probability: significant; country risk: high) is that Hugo Chávez is physically unable to stand for re-election; scenario two (probability: low; risk: significant) is that Chávez is able to run, but is defeated by opposition challenger Henrique Capriles; and scenario three (probability: high; risk: significant) is that Chávez wins re-election, but succumbs to his illness in late 2012 or into 2013.
Recent events, however, would seem to alter that calculus, with scenario one appearing now to be more likely than scenario three. Chávez today spends more time in Cuba (ostensibly receiving treatment) than in Venezuela, rarely appears in public, and recently appointedloyalists to a long-neglected “Council of State,” which many see as the first step toward the establishment of a junta to govern in Chávez’s absence or name a successor if Chávez is forced to step down.
Still, whether it is scenario one, two, or three, the bottom line remains that events in Venezuela are unlikely to proceed smoothly. How could it be otherwise? Twelve years of Chávez building his personality cult, sowing class warfare and social polarization, and gutting democratic institutions are all prescriptions for political turmoil in any kind of transition. Even if he dies an untimely death, Chávez will continue to wreak havoc on Venezuelan society.
Particularly troubling in this environment is the absence of the United States, which has considerable interest in what happens in Venezuela — from energy to counternarcotics and counterterrorism concerns. However, Jane’s points out that U.S. policy of attempting to contain Chávez’s influence from expanding regionally “has given way to a more benign view,” concluding “that Chávez may be now be best handled by leaving him alone to face his possibly terminal illness.”
This would be a huge strategic error. The U.S. government doesn’t need to cast itself as the running mate of Mr. Capriles, which would not help either. But it does have an interest in forestalling violence if Chávez’s successors try to strong-arm a transition or their candidate loses to Capriles in the fall. If anything, it should at least be pressuring regional governments like Brazil and Colombia to act in unison should events in Venezuela take a turn for the worse. Indeed, only preparing for the worst gives you the best chance of things turning out the best.
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