Having just returned from Cuba after a third major operation in the last year, Venezuela’s dogged President Hugo Chávez greeted crowds today in Caracas. His precarious health raises serious questions about Venezuela’s political future. With the presidential elections approaching in October, what does the future hold?
If Chávez makes a recovery and continues to lead the country until 2030, as he says he will, then we can expect much of the same. Aside from the questions about whether Chávez can govern while in a hospital bed in Havana, there have long been questions about the sustainability of this policies and the questionable means by which he achieves them. Problems such as high inflation, capital flight and low foreign direct investment are only likely to get worse as Chávez deepens his reforms.
If Chávez dies then there is no clear mechanism in place to select a successor. The likely result would be one of the following: the emergence of a strong man with close links to Chávez, the collapse of the Chávez project and the rise of an opposition candidate, or a military coup. Chávez’s neopopulist style has created a serious problem; a strong reliance on petrodollars and a consistent lack of reform or institution building raises serious questions about whether chavismo can survive Chávez.
If the opposition triumphs in October it will face very serious obstacles. The opposition is fractured and holding iself together for now in a loose coalition without a strong structure or leadership. The opposition would inherit a country stricken with conflict, and such division would be difficult to overcome once in power and faced with the reality of the situation.
Of the alternatives, the triumph of the opposition in the October elections would seem to give Venezuela the best chance in the near future, before Chávez can inflict any further damage.