Photo by: AFP/Getty Images
Photo by: AFP/Getty Images

The death of President Hugo Chavez marks the beginning of a perilous and hopeful moment for Venezuela and the Western Hemisphere.

There is no denying the impact of the charismatic ex-paratrooper, a plotter and survivor of coups who demolished Venezuela’s political power structure, won three elections with wide support and used the wealth from the world’s largest oil reserves to advance, across the Andes and beyond, his home-brewed ideology of “Bolivarian socialism.”

How long that incoherent ideology will survive its creator is an open question. The challenge now facing Venezuela and its neighbors is to ensure a peaceful transition to a new elected government. Under Venezuela’s constitution, an election must be held within 30 days. Given the supercharged atmosphere surrounding Chavez’s death -- just hours earlier, Vice President Nicolas Maduro blamed Chavez’s enemies for his cancer, and claimed that opposition groups were sabotaging the nation’s power grid -- the potential for unrest during the campaign looms large.

In last October’s election, Chavez used the tools of incumbency, including not just government largesse but also dominance of the news media and other soft authoritarian strategies, to disadvantage his challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski. That pattern will repeat itself, with the added uncertainty and tension that may come from rivalries between Maduro, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabelloand others within the post-Chavez camp.

Good Neighbors

It will fall to Venezuela’s democratic neighbors, led by Brazil and Colombia, to exert influence for a clean and lawful campaign. Any public pressure by the U.S. will be as ineffective as it is unwelcome -- in the short run, Chavez’s followers are likely to resort even more readily to anti-American invective to whip up popular support, as Maduro did the day Chavez died by expelling two U.S. diplomats for allegedly seeking to destabilize the country.

The disappearance of the larger-than-life Chavez does create more of an opening for the Organization of American States to call, if needed, for intervention under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It also provides an opportunity to defeat a cynical “reform” aimed at weakening one of the hemisphere’s human-rights monitors. Chavez, along with his ally President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, had led an attack on the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which had called attention to Venezuela’s authoritarian drift. In a measure to be taken up this month in Washington, they propose to cut funds to the judicial watchdog and particularly to its special rapporteur for freedom of expression, who defends liberty of the press and journalists. Some deft and forceful diplomacy could blunt that effort, which would weaken protection for opposition groups at a particularly bad time.

Seismic political upheaval in Venezuela, however, is neither imminent nor desirable. Not only are 20 out of 23 governorships in the hands of Chavez supporters (many of them former military officers), but over the course of his dozen years in power he built up a 125,000-strong militia, of whom 30,000 could be considered armed combatants. Having them pour out into the streets is in nobody’s best interests.

Instead, if moderate change is to come, it will be driven largely by economic necessity. Chavez’s policies, especially his most recent pre-election spending splurge, have led to growing debt, among the highest borrowing costs of emerging market countries, one of the world’s highest inflation rates, and widespread shortages of milk, meat, toilet paper and other basic goods. A recent devaluation will help government finances but make imported goods even more expensive and seems like a short-term fix.

’Homegrown Charm’

Such economic tribulations didn’t seem to dim the adulation of Chavez’s supporters, who backed him repeatedly. His likely successors, however, may not have his “immediate friendliness and…homegrown charm” -- qualities that Gabriel Garcia Marquez singled out in calling Chavez “a natural storyteller.” And they probably won’t have as much money to mix with the magical realism. Starved of investment and milked to fund Chavez’s special projects, Venezuela’s state-run oil company produces one-quarter less oil than it did when he first took office.

In the days and months ahead, Chavez’s champions and critics will debate the extent to which his policies reduced poverty and inequality, and how accountable he should be held for the near-quadrupling of murders from 1998 to 2011, when more than 19,000 Venezuelans were killed (about the same as the total for the U.S. and the European Union combined). They may plumb the mysteries of Chavismo, including the wisdom of forging ties with Iran and Syria and giving away billions of dollars in oil each year to Cuba. But the luxury of mulling history’s verdict will be denied to whoever takes Chavez’s place, because the economic mess he left behind will demand all of his successor’s attention.

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