Venezuelanleader Hugo Chávez has tried for 10 months to conceal the fact that he islosing his bout with cancer, determined to appear in command of hisrevolutionary regime and the nation’s future. This past Holy Week, however, televisioncameras captured him pleadingfor his life before a crucifix in his hometown church, his mother lookingon without the slightest glint of hope on her face. Chávez’s raw emotion startledhis inner circle and led some to question his mental health. As a result,according to my sources inside the presidential palace, Minister of Defense Gen.Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chávez’sdeteriorating condition causes any hint of instability.
Prettydramatic stuff. So why isn’t anyone outside Venezuela paying attention? Somecynics in that country still believeChávez is hyping his illness for political advantage, while his most fervent followersexpect him to make a miraculous recovery. The democratic opposition is cautiouslypreparing for a competitive presidential election set for Oct. 7 — againstChávez or a substitute. And policymakers in Washington and most regionalcapitals are slumbering on the sidelines.
In myestimation, the approaching death of the Venezuelan caudillo could put the country on the path toward a political andsocial meltdown. The military cadre installed by Chávez in January already isbehaving like a de facto regime determined to hold onto power at allcosts. And Havana, Tehran, Moscow, and Beijingare moving to protect their interests. If U.S. President Barack Obama were to showsome energetic engagement as Chávez fades, he could begin to put the brakes onVenezuela’s slide, reverse Chávismo’sdestructive agenda, and reclaim a role for the United States in its ownneighborhood. But if he fails to act, there will be hell to pay.
Sourcesclose to Chávez’s medical team tell me that for months, his doctors have beendoing little more than treating symptoms, trying to stabilize their workaholicpatient long enough to administer last-ditch chemo and radiation therapies. Inthat moment of Chávez’s very public prayer for a miracle, he set aside his obsessionwith routing his opposition or engineering a succession of power to hardlineloyalists. Perhaps he knows that his lieutenants and foreign allies arebehaving as if he were already dead — consolidating power, fashioning a”revolutionary junta,” and plotting repressive measures.
One ofthem is longtime Chávista operatorand military man Diosdado Cabello, who was installed by Chávez to lead the rulingparty as well as the National Assembly in January. Cabello’s appointment wasmeant to reassure a powerful cadre of narcomilitares— Gen. Rangel Silva, Army Gen. Cliver Alcalá, retired intelligence chief Gen. Hugo Carvajal,and half a dozen other senior officers who have been brandeddrug“kingpins“by the U.S. government. These ruthless men will never surrender power and theimpunity that goes with it — and they have no illusions that elections willconfer “legitimacy” on a Venezuelan narco-state, relying instead on billions ofdollars in ill-gotten gain and tens of thousands of soldiers under theircommand.
Chavismo’s civilian leadership — includingForeign Minister Nicolás Maduro, Vice President Elías Jaua, and the president’sbrother, Adán Chávez, the governor of the Chávez family’s home state of Barinas– are eager to vindicate their movement’s ideological agenda at the polls thisfall. Maduro is extraordinarily loyal to the president, and is considered byVenezuelan political observers as the most viable substitute on the ballot. Above all, these men cravepolitical power and will jockey to make themselves indispensable to themilitary leaders who are calling the shots today.
Cuba’s Fideland Raúl Castro are desperate to preserve the life-blood of Venezuelan oil thatsustains their bankrupt regime. According to a source who was briefed on conversationsin Cuba, Raúl has counseled Chávez to prepare to pass power to a “revolutionaryjunta”; Venezuelans who are suspicious of the Castros expect them to pack the juntawith men loyal to Havana. Cabello does not trust the Castros, but withthousands of Cuban intelligence officers and triggermen on the ground inVenezuela, the Castro brothers are a force to be reckoned with.
TheChinese have provided more than $20billion in quickie loans to Chávez in the last 18 months, which are to berepaid by oil at well below the market price. Most of these funds were paid intoChávez’s slush funds before the Chinese knew of his terminal condition. Another$4 billion is being negotiated now, but my sources in the Venezuelan Foreign Ministrysay the Chinese are demanding new guarantees. Beijing also is angling to ensurethat any post-Chávez government will honor its sweetheart deals. However, thesepredatory contracts are being scrutinized by leading opposition members of theNational Assembly.
Iran ismore dependent than ever on its banks and other ventures in Venezuela as ameans to launder billions in funds to evade tightening international financialsanctions. Companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, theQods Force, and illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs haveinvested millions in infrastructure in shadowy facilities throughoutVenezuela. Tehran will struggle tokeep its beachhead near U.S. soil, which is vital to its survival strategy inthe critical months ahead.
Russiais consideringmaking$1-2 billion in payments in the weeks ahead to lock in natural gas and oildeals signed with Chávez. Some inMoscow, however, are weary of theVenezuelan shakedown, particularly because they know that Chávez’s days are numbered.Russian firms are deciding now whether to double down on the Chávez regime,which has been a reliable customer of more than $13billion in Russian arms, or waitto see if a successor government will honor its agreements in the oil and gas sector.
TheSoviet-style succession that corrupt Chavistasand their Cuban handlers are trying to impose on the Venezuelan people isanything but a done deal. There is room and time for friends of democracy to playa constructive role.
Cabelloand company, my sources tell me, are far more likely to resort tounconstitutional measures and repression if they can count on support fromMoscow and Beijing. The Chavistasintend to promise continued cheap oil and sweetheart contracts to leverage thissupport. Discreet U.S. diplomacy — working in concert with like-minded allies –can help scuttle these plans. The Chinese and Russians may not be eager todefend yet another violent pariah regime, and Washington should rally LatinAmerican leaders to draw the line against a Syria scenario in the WesternHemisphere.
At theheart of the Chavista strategy is anarco-state, led by men with well-documented ties to narco-trafficking. The WhiteHouse should instruct U.S. law enforcement agencies to smash the foundations ofthis regime. One Venezuelan general or corrupt judge in a witness box in a U.S.federal courthouse will strike the regime at the very top and destroy anyillusion of legitimacy or survivability.
U.S.intelligence agencies have been virtually blind to the Iranian presence inVenezuela. If they were instructed to kick over the rocks to see what iscrawling underneath, I am convinced that they would discover a graveand growing threat against the security of the United States and its alliesin the region. Such evidence will help motivate Venezuela’s neighbors to take astand against an even more unaccountable regime taking shape in Caracas.
Venezuela’smilitary is not a monolith, and Chávez has undermined his own successionstrategy by giving the narco-generals such visible and operational roles. Thefact that the narco-generals will be more willing to resort to unconstitutionalmeasures and repression to keep power andcarry the “narco” label sets them apart from the rank-and-file soldiers andinstitutionalist generals. The UnitedStates military still carries a lot of weight with these men. A simpleadmonition to respect their constitution and serve their people may split thebulk of the force away from the narcos and deny them the means to impose their will.(Institutionalist generals may react in a similar way to news that Iran isconducting secret operations on Venezuelan territory that are both unconstitutionaland a dangerous provocation.)
There ismuch the United States and the international community can do withoutinterfering in Venezuela’s internal politics. Although the leaders of thedemocratic opposition are determined to keep their distance from Washington, theymust at least show the flag in the United States and other key countries toelicit the solidarity they deserve. Moreover, anyone who thinks the oppositioncan take on Cuba, China, Russia, Iran, drug traffickers, and Hezbollah withoutinternational backing is just not thinking straight.
Unfortunately,the career U.S. diplomats in Washington responsible for Venezuela have spentthe last two years downplaying the mess there and the three years before thatneglecting it altogether. So if there is any hope for U.S. leadership, it willrequire the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama.Alas, in our own neighborhood, “leading from behind” is not an option.