By Max Watkins
Hugo Chavez has ruled Venezuela as president since 1999, creating a socialist welfare state based on nationalized oil production through the distribution of oil revenue. Now in his third term and intending to run for a fourth term, after modifying Venezuela’s constitution so he can be reelected perpetually, Chavez and Venezuela are at a crossroads. The Venezuelan government and country are kept in order through the cult of personality of Chavez and his distribution of oil revenue, but with his health in jeopardy and antagonistic policies increasingly creating internal unrest and international resentment, Venezuela is faces the possibility of future conflict.
Chavez is crucial to the Venezuelan government because he has systematically eroded the representative democracy since his first election in the late 1990s. He is, in effect, the government. Although there is opposition to him and his policies within Venezuela, his secret police and alliance with Cuba, which has provided him with thousands of intelligence agents, has thoroughly marginalized this threat to his rule. But he has been unable to neutralize the threat of cancer, which he admitted to having last year. After undergoing treatment in Cuba, he has come back to Venezuela, expressing his strength and good health. But over Easter, he was witnessed as begging and pleading for his life in his hometown’s church. This event is atypical for Chavez, who always conveys confidence and determination. There is the very real possibility that his cancer will take his life, sooner rather than later. The consequences of Chavez’s death would be serious.
For Venezuela, Chavez’s death will usher in a period of severe unrest and disruption of daily lives. A successor will not come from the country’s democratic institutions, since Chavez has greatly weakened them. The most likely successor will come from the military, an institution that has flourished under Chavez’s rule, as he was once a leader of it and has bolstered its capabilities so he can credibly threaten his neighbors, specifically Columbia. A military general or group of generals, many of whom have strong ties to drug production and distribution, would increase the authoritarian nature of the Venezuela’s government and turn the country into a narco-state, a throwback to Columbia in the 1980s. Naturally, most Venezuelans won’t like this turn of events, so we can expect domestic unrest. As with many petro-states, domestic unrest oftentimes leads to disruptions in the production and distribution of oil, whose revenue accounts for over fifty percent of Venezuela’s budget. Declining oil revenue would cause further domestic unrest, as the socialist welfare state can no longer subsidize basic goods like food, fuel, and housing.
In a larger context, the disruption of oil production would have far reaching consequences. With sanctions imposed on Iranian oil, the OPEC and other oil producing states are already under significant pressure to boost their production to offset the loss of Iranian oil because Western leaders do not want their sanctions to increase the price of oil. For example, in the United States as the presidential election nears, President Obama wants to keep the price of oil, and thus gas, as low as possible so public anger at high fuel costs can’t be directed at him, which would weaken his chances of reelection.
The health of Chavez is thus of great interest to many in Venezuela and throughout the world, for even a weakened Chavez will likely lead to unrest and conflict.
Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on International Conflicts. Contact him at email@example.com.