Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez told a gathering of regional heads of government in Caracas on Saturday that, “Roger Noriega wants me to die.” That’s not quite true. Even less true is Chávez’s unbelievable assertion that four rounds of chemotherapy left him “without a single carcinogenic cell” in his body. Chávez is forced to make such an absurd claim—insulting the intelligence of 30 or so statesmen and 30 million Venezuelans—in a desperate effort to give his corrupt cronies an advantage as they try to hold things together after his impending death.
For the record, I have published on several occasions that the doctors who have been treating Chávez since June believe that his cancer—beginning in the prostate and spreading to his lymph glands, colon, and bones—is terminal. My initial comment on this subject was intended to alert the Venezuelan opposition of the plotting by regime insiders to hold on to power at all costs. “The opposition must get busy to persuade their nation that they offer a healthier vision than Chavismo’s cynical cronies,” I wrote in the Miami Herald in July.
"When Chávez dies, he will leave behind a wrecked economy and a polarized nation."
A succession of reports leaked to the AEI Venezuela project from within Chávez’s medical team has confirmed the initial dire assessment. The most recent projection is that he will die before the October 2012 presidential elections.
Chávez’s decision to deceive his people is risky. Indeed, the people most likely to be fooled by his claims are his most fervent followers. So, when their leader eventually succumbs to his illness, his cronies will be left scrambling to hold on to their political base, which they have been lying to for a year. Ironically, Venezuela’s democratic opposition does not seem to be fooled by Chávez’s story, and they appear to be prepared for any contingency. If Chávez is on the ballot next October, an opposition candidate has a chance to beat him; if he is not, the democratic alternative’s prospects improve considerably.
Indeed, when Chávez falters, all bets are off. Once Chávez fades or dies, the military will wield unparalleled power in managing the ensuing chaos. And the military’s current leaders—several of whom have been branded narco-kingpins by U.S. authorities—cannot and will not run the risk of losing power. So, they can be expected to resort to any option—including scuttling the elections and violent repression—to maintain their safe haven. When that happens, Venezuela’s opposition will hope that military leaders loyal to the constitution (along with the world’s democrats) will stand with them.
If that sort of chaotic succession battle ensues, the reaction of the international community—particularly Washington—could be decisive. As a matter of fact, my primary objective in alerting the public to Chávez’s condition has been to awaken slumbering U.S. diplomats who have been sitting on the sidelines as Cubans, Russians, and Chinese fill the power vacuum in Venezuela and the rest of the region. In the coming year, the United States may have to play a legitimate role in insisting that all sides, particularly the regime and its destructive foreign backers, respect a constitutional transition. That means adhering to the current electoral timetable, holding a fair campaign monitored by independent observers, and respecting the results of the election. Although the current Latin America team in the State Department cannot be counted on to get this right, there is reason to hope that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will exert some leadership in the critical months ahead.
Of course, as Washington slumbers, other regional leaders may be called upon to rally a constructive regional response. Some of the men who heard Chávez lie about his immortality on Saturday may soon play a positive role in ensuring a healthy, peaceful transition after he passes. The rescue and rehabilitation of that South American country is in the interest of the entire region.
Regional leaders will find that Venezuela’s opposition is offering a positive alternative for the future. Five extraordinarily decent democrats—four of them in their thirties or early forties—who are competing for votes in a primary to produce a unity candidate next February. Outside observers should also remember that the opposition slate won a majority of the votes in National Assembly elections in September 2010. Moreover, Chávez has been forced to accept defeat when major constitutional reforms were rejected in 2007 and when opposition candidates won state governorships in 2008.
When Chávez dies, he will leave behind a wrecked economy and a polarized nation. If the United States and the international community wake up before it is too late and side with democracy, Venezuelans may soon begin the hard work of burying Chavez’s destructive legacy.
Roger Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI