Pushing the Hugo Chavez Era Toward Its End

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That the end would come sooner rather than later for Hugo Chavez appeared in recent years to be a pretty safe bet. His influence over Latin American affairs waned after a series of mishaps and strategic defeats, from Honduras to his own country's disputes with Colombia (in particular with Colombia's former President Alvaro Uribe). His stewardship over the Venezuelan economy was proving exponentially disastrous. His whole Bolivarian project just seemed like a farce -- dangerous, still, but increasingly more quixotic than anything else.

That it would be on account of cancer, though, no one could possibly predict. After all, following his first scare, he was back on the campaign trail after a few months off and looking quite on the mend. In fact many, myself included, believed the end would come by way of the ballot box, but those expectations were dashed. The election came and went: Chavez got some extra mileage from his political platform of demagogic largesse, while the opposition failed to inspire the turnout it needed to go that last mile. That was the end of that, apparently.

Except now it seems Chavez is not doing well and his only pending agenda might be with his family, his loved ones and his Maker. Reports he is recuperating and becoming more involved in his presidential duties need to be taken with a grain of salt; they are about as credible as an old USSR press release. This is not to be cavalier about the man's health. In fact, regardless of how he is doing, none what follows politically should involve him. However objectionable his policies as a leader may have been, no one who has been bedside next to a suffering cancer patient can really wish them anything but peace.

But the reality remains he is not an acting head of state -- so a lot more follows politically nonetheless.

Under most fair readings of the Venezuelan Constitution, Chavez's swearing-in should not have been postponed in absentia -- neither should the start of his most recent term occurred, for that matter. There is something rather enjoyably ironic to that, since -- under most democratic constitutions throughout Latin America -- the chain-of-command and continuity in government would have been clear-cut and closed to debate. The second-in-command would have taken office until the president-elect came back to power or was determined unable to do so. Controversy would have been averted.

However, since Chavez and his allies took a scalpel to their constitution in an effort to make a Rube Goldberg-esque document ensuring their perpetuation in power, that is far from the case here. No, under most fair readings of that constitution, an election should be held again and effectively Chavez's term ought be nullified.

That will not be the case, of course, since the Venezuelan Supreme Court conveniently stepped in and settled the matter -- except that it did so less on the merits, and more on the lack of concerted challenges to what is happening in Venezuela. The court ruled, in short, because it could. 

Such judicial maneuvering raises imortant questions. Like why, for example, is the Organization for American States (OAS) not taking up a serious discussion on Venezuela? Why is it not prepping a diplomatic mission to at least gain a better sense of what the reality on the ground is? Just as much, if not more, has been set into motion on lesser suspicions of ruptured constitutional orders and undemocratic actions in other countries. (Consider Honduras and Paraguay.)

Just as importantly, why did the opposition -- led by Henrique Capriles -- go only as far as reluctantly and grumblingly accepting the matter as settled? It is understandable that they wished to convey respect and serenity in a tense situation. But there was much, much more room for stronger protests and louder objections. Further, if the OAS was unlikely to take a hard look at Venezuela because of misplaced fear and reverence to Chavez or Venezuela or both, it was even less likely to do so if the opposition is hesitant to openly and loudly denounce what is wrong and corrupt.

Chavez's passing will only mean the end of Chavism if both the Venezuelan opposition and the OAS step up forcefully -- in that order. Caudillismo dies with the caudillo only if it is replaced by something better when he goes -- otherwise a new caudillo steps in soon enough. It is a tragicomedy Latin America has wrestled with since its inception, and it is as true in the case of Venezuela now as it was previously anywhere else.

Moreover, the expectation that infighting between Chavez loyalists -- led by either Nicolas Madura or Diosdado Cabello -- could destabilize the government enough to be a significant setback is particularly factitious fantasy. Chavez's legacy, if nothing else, is built on the importance of political survival at all costs. Whether that means throwing your regional allies under the bus, swallowing your jingoistic pride, bankrupting a state-run company -- or acquiescing to another's leadership grab.

But fate has granted Venezuela a second chance following the missed opportunity of the elections back in October. These are rare and its citizens must not hesitate to push forcefully for change.

Venezuela's opposition badly needs a reset. With enough bodies in the streets they could effectively mark a turning point when they stop being shouted down and pushed aside by Chavism. They must object, they must protest and they must demand something better for their country. 

In turn, those countries in the Americas that believe democracy remain a healthy and dynamic system on the continent must stand up, by way of the OAS, and support the efforts of Venezuelan democrats.

That list should include the United States, leading from the front.

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