Venezuela without Chávez
BY ROGER F. NORIEGA
Doctors treating Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez for cancer told him weeks
ago that he has only a 50 percent chance of living another 18 months,
according to sources close to his medical team in Cuba. Members of
Chávez's inner circle are scrambling now to ensure a succession of power
to the leader's older brother, Adán.
With the ailing dictator off the political stage for at least two
months, civic leaders can jumpstart a transition by laying out a
constructive plan for addressing the country's growing crises. This
task is even more urgent, because regime insiders have begun to quietly
mobilize their campaign team in case they need to ambush the opposition
by rushing to presidential elections, which are now set for December 2012.
The regime's communication team is taking care to appear
transparent, although they are consciously withholding information to
keep the opposition guessing about Chávez's condition and recovery.
They also are encouraging Chavista ministers — who usually labor
ineffectively in their boss' shadow — to provoke the opposition, stoke
social division, and appear to be problem-solvers. However, all the
slogans and stagecraft do not compensate for the fact that their leader
may lose his battle with cancer very soon.
Behind the scenes, Chavistas are desperate to engineer a smooth
succession to keep power and evade accountability. If Chávez dies, Vice
President Elias Juau may be able to hold things together temporarily.
Adán Chávez is his brother's choice. He has the confidence of Cuban
dictator Fidel Castro and two key narcogenerals, Defense Minister Henry
Rangel-Silva and military intelligence director Hugo Carvajal. He also
is able to tame a powerful cadre of corrupt cronies (including former
vice president Diosdado Cabello and minister Jesse Chacón).
The regime's political managers are studying national and
provincial polls that show that Chávez's illness has generated sympathy
for him and his government. However, these surveys confirm their doubts
that their leader can transfer his popularity, even to his brother and
mentor. According to internal deliberations, they believe their chances
are improved if Chávez is still around to endorse his successor — even
if that means moving up the elections. Moreover, advancing the date of
the elections may catch the opposition off-balance and prevent them from
coalescing behind a unity candidate after a primary scheduled for
Another bit of evidence of the regime's plans is that Chávez
confidante, foreign minister Nicolas Maduro, has begun to identify
grassroots activists from every corner of the country on behalf of
Chávez's Partido Solicialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV). The hastily
prepared plans call for scrubbing a nationwide list of 7.1 million
activists to be prepared to mobilize neighborhood campaign "patrols" by
the end of the year — a full 12 months before the current election date.
Polls prepared for the palace's internal use and others published
in the media show that Miranda province governor Henrique Capriles
Radonski was extraordinarily popular in his own province and emerging as
a popular national alternative to Chavismo. Capriles has managed to cut
into Chávez's base by governing well and by reaching out to the very
poor who depend on the regime's generosity.
Concerned that Capriles might gain strength in Chávez's absence, the
regime recently threatened to disqualify his candidacy by inventing
corruption charges. The recent sentencing of the respected opposition
figure, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, to a two-year prison term on trumped
charges is another sign of the regime's ruthless determination.
All of this suggests that a democratic transition is very much
in doubt. The opposition must get busy to persuade their nation —
particularly the poor who have looked to Chávez for hope — that they
offer a healthier vision than Chavismo's cynical cronies. They must
employ fresh messages and tap new media to mobilize a civic movement to
help save their country.
An attentive public will be receptive to common sense about
their future: Venezuelans deserve a leader who is elected, not
selected. Venezuelans should feel safe to walk their streets.
Venezuelans should be able to offer their children a country that is
unified and prosperous. Venezuela's resources belong to the people —
not to the president or his party. And, Venezuela should be a nation of
laws, where rules are respected and rights are protected.
If Venezuela's democrats work in a unified way to present a
practical, reasonable plan to people from all walks of life, they have a
chance of winning a genuine transition to democracy. If they act
urgently, they may even be able to convince slumbering policy makers in
Washington to support a Caracas Spring over Chavismo without the charm.
However, the hard work must begin in Venezuela, and it must begin now.
Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States
from 2001-2003 and assistant secretary of state from 2003-2005.