Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.
This Sunday, the historically disorganized Venezuelan opposition movement is holding its first-ever presidential primary to decide upon a single candidate to challenge long-time strongman Hugo Chavez. With regional governor Henrique Capriles expected to prevail, the aging Chavez faces a younger version of himself: namely, a dynamic rising star promising to transform the political landscape. This time, however, the figure is moving it away from the heavy-handed populism initiated by Chavez after he swept into office in 1998.
Over the course of his tenure, Chavez’s pursuit of “21st century socialism” in Venezuela has propelled him to self-declared “president for life” status. Among his accomplishments are the systematic and brutal persecution of political opponents and critical journalists, the stacking of parliament with his supporters, various cash-payment programs to the voting poor to ensure his popularity, and - in a related dynamic - the general undermining (aka, looting) of the country’s primary economic engine, the national oil company known as PDVSA. Chavez has also turned Venezuela into one of the most crime-ridden nations in the world with the annual inflation averaging close to 30 percent.
Still, El Comandante has inspired copycat Chavista leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and has reinvigorated Cuba’s communist dictatorship - all the best friends that money can buy.
But with the de facto dictator mysteriously seeking cancer care in Havana last year, widespread talk has surfaced that this election may well be Chavez’s last. Taking that hypothetical as our starting point, this week’s Wikistrat crowd-sourced analysis looks at what just might lie ahead for a post-Chavez Venezuela. Here are five pathways to consider.
1) Capriles’ vigorous-but-doomed campaign ignites an anti-Chavez “spring”
The long beaten-down opposition did manage to capture half of the popular vote in 2010 midterm parliamentary election, stripping Chavez’s ruling party of the supermajority that previously allowed him to rewrite the constitution. So with the strongman’s approval numbers running just over 50 percent in recent polls, it’s not inconceivable that Capriles could pull off a stunning upset - even if he might have to flee the country to survive it. But with Chavez opening up government coffers like never before, we’re betting he’ll squeeze by in what will be officially tallied as a “popular landslide.”
Depending on how blatantly Chavez manipulates the voting process, we could be looking at a blowback dynamic similar to the Green Movement that blossomed in Iran after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s similarly engineered “landslide” in 2009. While it’s unlikely that America would step in any more here than it did in Iran, any hard-to-conceal Chavez medical relapse could set off some serious endgame dynamics - to include some inside the regime.
2) Chavismo without Chavez – the martyr maneuver
While many Latin American experts are convinced that Chavismo cannot survive without its mega-wattage star, we’d expect the regime’s senior players to give it a good go by quickly elevating the deceased Chavez into a socialist sainthood on par with, say, Cuba’s revolutionary icon, the Argentina-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Given the intimate and pervasive cooperation between Venezuela’s and Cuba’s security establishments, this would seem a no-brainer short-term fix, along with somehow circumventing that pesky constitution to slip Hugo’s elder brother Adan into the presidency so he could run in any “emergency” election as the presumptive heir.
But this would be a compromise solution - a Band-Aid. Chavez built his dictatorship the old-fashioned way: by destroying all the political institutions that would naturally validate a legitimate successor. Thus, we’d expect a nasty internal power struggle would invariably ensue.
3) Cue up the timeless salsa between lefty dictators and military juntas
Latin America has a long and rich history of military coups toppling radical dictators - a sort of out with the old and in with the older dynamic guaranteed to upset just about everyone at home and abroad. In recent years, Chavez increasingly relied on the Venezuelan military to shore up his power base and augment his cash flow, and that tactic invariably landed some very powerful - and shady - generals both in his cabinet and on the U.S. Treasury’s list of known narcotic traffickers.
Well-armed people like that don’t leave power without a fight, but truly professional criminals also prefer to wield power from behind the scenes. Given enough time and offshore bank accounts, we could easily see the military retreating into a “guarantor of the republic” role that allowed for more business-friendly, non-ideological civilian leaders to finally re-emerge - so long as they knew their place.
4) Venezuela as the new Colombia
Part of Chavez’s long game had been to provide sanctuary for Colombia’s stubborn narco-insurgency, the FARC, as well as trans-shipment of its illicit wares to North America and beyond. So let’s imagine that the country’s drug-lords-with-shoulder-boards can’t play nice with each other, much less all the region’s cash-rich criminal gangs. As a post-Chavez Venezuela spirals downward into Scarface-level criminal violence, it becomes a magnet for Mexico’s uber-ambitious and ultra violent cartels, which are currently colonizing much of Central America (e.g., Belize, Guatemala, Honduras).
With all the Russian arms that flooded the country under Chavez (Venezuela has its own assault rifle factory that cranks out the modern version of the timeless AK-47), and considering Iran’s interest in fomenting trouble in “Great Satan’s” backyard, this scenario could end up being anti-American Chavez’s final affront to the U.S.
5) Stipulating all of the above, the next Chavez could turn out to be a “Lula”
As we suggested earlier with Capriles, the next “savior” doesn’t have to ride into town on a white steed - much less in military uniform. He just has to excite enough of Venezuela’s shrinking middle class and assure enough of its handout-addicted rural poor that he feels both of their “pain.” That’s what Brazil’s left-of-center, two-time president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva pulled off to the point where he got to handpick his successor, Dilma Rousseff - the country’s first-ever female leader. That’s how a democratic “strong man” gets it done.
While it’s easy to be pessimistic about a post-Chavez Venezuela, there’s every reason to expect Brazil won’t stand idly by and see Venezuela turn completely to the dark side of globalization. Plus, quite frankly, there’s no “evil emperor” out there willing and/or able to pick up the tab - not big-talking Iran, increasingly anti-American Russia, or the exceedingly risk-averse Chinese.
So, given President Obama’s firm desire to execute his post-Iraq/Afghanistan “strategic pivot” to East Asia, we’re betting that Brazil’s benign regional leadership will ultimately prove more decisive than America’s drug war-tainted hectoring in steering a post-Chavez Venezuela back into the fold of reasonably functioning democracies.
That’s Wikistrat's “wisdom of the crowd” for this week.
Now tell us which path you find most plausible, or what other scenarios you can envision in the comments section below. And be sure to check out more at Wikistrat.com, a cutting-edge global consultancy.