After Chavez?

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Last night, we found out that Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, did not just have a "pelvic abcess" drained while visiting Cuba.  He had a cancerous tumor removed, which sounds like prostate cancer, but I suppose could be almost anything internal.  


Already, the incident is exposing the damage that Chavez has done to his country's institutions.  12 years of Chavismo have not only done severe and possibly irreparable damage to its oil infrastructure and its economy, but also ruthlessly eliminated threats to the power of one Hugo Chavez, such as political rivals, other power centers in the government, and freedom of speech.  Now it's not clear what happens with Chavez out of commission:

His absence has left a vacuum in Venezuela underscoring a system that is not only incapable of selecting a replacement but also institutionally incapable of balancing competing (some of them criminal and potentially violent) elements within the government.  The risk--not just now--is that even should he return to full health, Venezuela is fast becoming a failed state, held together by one sultanistic leader and the opposition's hatred of him.

After his speech last night, the Vice President, Elías Jaua and others called for "maximum unity" in the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV). That unity is likely to fray with President Chávez's uncertain recovery and his probable intermittent absence as he seeks treatment. Criminal elements within the regime are likely to pursue any means possible to avoid being revealed and relinquishing their nefarious and lucrative businesses. Already there are rumors of individuals within the government reaching out to segments of the opposition.

Dictators tend to fall as soon as questions arise as to whether they'll be around to continue doling out rents to their cronies.  But I'm not sure how you apply that to Chavez, who has, after all, been put in office by kindasorta democratic elections.  How does the opposition take over?  Does the military or some other group step in?

Obviously, whatever happens is likely to be at least temporarily disruptive of their oil output, which has implications for the US (we import a lot of Venezuelan oil), but even more disruptive for the Venezuelan people. 
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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