Uncertainty For Chavez, Venezuela Could Shake Up Region, U.S. Policy

One day after Venezuelans around the world watched anxiously to see if cancer-stricken President-elect Hugo Chavez would emerge from a Cuban hospital, return to Venezuela and take the oath of office by the Thursday deadline spelled out in the country’s constitution, the implications in the region and beyond span a broad and hard-to-predict range.

But both experts and expatriates say the uncertainty has inspired cautious hopes for reforms, both within the region and also to the at-times contentious relationship between Venezuela and the U.S.

Venezuelans living in the U.S. offer starkly different perspectives on the events of Jan. 11. Some described Chavez’s inability to show up to his own inauguration and a Venezuelan Supreme Court ruling that his swearing-in could be postponed as a bloodless, Cuban-led coup. Others said it was just the latest episode of Chavez's unlawful, power-hungry behavior, which is slowly undoing the country and its economy.

Experts who study the oil-rich South American country expect that the real effects of Venezuela’s political uncertainty will likely unfold over the course of this year. When they do, change at the top of Venezuela’s government could: spur some ardent Chavez opponents who have left the country to return, leave opposition groups or a member of Chavez’s party in power that could be friendlier toward the U.S., and eventually alter the region’s political and economic dynamics. The result beyond Venezuela's borders could be increased political upheaval, with the potential to spark significant change in other sections of Latin America from which many Latinos living in the U.S. hail.

“I don’t know if this is the moment of change in Venezuela but it’s certainly a very interesting time,” said Diana Villiers Negroponte, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. “One question is, what happens if the two men behind this region’s leftist, socialist coalition, that is Chavez and [Cuba’s Fidel] Castro, the founders of this wave, both die? The other is what kind of relationship will a Venezuela not led by Chavez want with the United States?”

Negroponte specializes in Central America and Mexico, and is also following events in Venezuela closely.

Chavez, the effective head of Venezuela’s Partido Socialista Unido (United Socialist Party), has served as the country’s president since he was first elected in 1999. Over the course of his two six-year terms, Chavez relied on the force of his own personality and domestic political repression, along with generous oil subsidies, trade and loan terms with other Latin American and Caribbean countries, to bolster socialist and sympathetic regimes, Negroponte said.

Chavez also used economic incentives to discourage other countries in the region from expanding their relationship with the U.S., according to Negroponte. Those incentives helped to hold together a left-leaning coalition of countries that includes Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Barbuda and Dominica. Venezuela also has close ties to Cuba, where Chavez is currently being treated -- another country with which the U.S. has a tense relationship. On Friday, Chavez's number two, Vice President Nicolás Maduro Moro, as well as the presidents of Peru and Argentina, traveled to Havana to check on Chavez and talk with his doctors and family, the Miami Herald reported.

Chavez’s party will likely call for a new presidential election in the next 30 days while sympathy for Chavez remains high, in the hopes that a special election would favor Maduro, Negroponte said. Even if Maduro prevails, it is possible that Venezuela is on the precipice of significant change. In November, a month after Venezuela's elections, Maduro met with U.S. government officials in an effort to try to normalize relations between his country and the U.S. And while Venezuelans living in the U.S. generally do not rank among Chavez’s fans, they are not his party’s only problem.

Chavez won the October election for his third term with 55 percent of the vote -- just 11 points ahead of opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski. Six years ago, Chavez won the presidency with 75 percent of the vote, a 25-point lead over his opponent.

The figures indicate that 45 percent of the electorate -- both inside and outside the country -- voted against Chavez just a few months ago, Negroponte noted.

But by December, Chavez was out of the country receiving treatment in Cuba for a still-unidentified form of cancer. And this month, official state reports on Chavez’s health and those of conservative and opposition-influenced news outlets have differed wildly.

Some have said that Chavez is in a medically-induced coma, recovering from surgery. Others say Chavez is dead and Cuban officials are attempting to keep this fact under wraps so that the island country can continue to enjoy especially low-cost Venezuelan oil.

“We have a very big problem in right now,” said Ernesto Ackerman, president of the nonprofit Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens organization. The Miami-based group works to encourage greater Venezuelan-American participation in U.S politics, but also serves as a sort of rallying point for expatriates like Ackerman who deeply oppose Chavez. “They are breaking the constitutional laws and not following the guidelines.”

Chavez remains in power with what Ackerman described as a sick-note from Cuban officials willing only to describe his condition in general terms. Cuba receives virtually all of the oil that drives its economy -- 90,000 barrels a day -- from Venezuela at a reduced price and low-interest credit terms, according to Negroponte. The U.S. depends on Venezuela to supply about 10 percent of its annual oil needs, though it's a supply that the U.S. can replace rather easily from other sources, she said.

What Cuba has that no other country does is an accurate understanding of Chavez's health.

“What we need is for a team of doctors to go to Cuba and determine if the president is still alive or dead,” Ackerman said. “Right now, the president is sequestered in Cuba and no knows what is going on. So, what we have is very simple. There has been a bullet-free invasion, a coup in Venezuela directed from Cuba.”

In the U.S., Miami -- known for its large Cuban population -- is also home to most of the nation's estimated 215,023 Venezuelan-born immigrants and their children, according to the 2010 census. Most Venezuelans living in the U.S. strongly oppose Chavez and his socialist agenda. Ackerman, a dual citizen who also votes Republican in the U.S., is no exception. But with Chavez unavailable and the country’s political path uncertain, he finds himself worried rather than thrilled.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to see what is going to happen but I think a lot of us, we are very concerned,” Ackerman said. “With these communist people you never know what is going to happen.”

On Saturday, Ackerman and other members of the expatriate South Florida Venezuelan community will stage a protest outside of the closed Venezuelan consulate. They plan to voice concerns about the fact that no president has been sworn in, and that Venezuela's Supreme Court approved a delay.

On Jan. 23, Venezuela’s opposition parties are expected to mount their own, large-scale protest in Caracas. Venezuelans and expatriates will watch what happens closely.

Alejandro Leal Menendez, a Venezuelan-trained lawyer who has lived in the U.S. since 2010 and starts each morning trying to gather news out of Venezuela online, counts himself among those who would like to see Chavez’s time in office come to an end.

Leal now works in finance and lives in New York. Back in his home country, Chavez has redistributed the country’s wealth but has also destroyed and driven away much of the country’s middle class and created unsustainable levels of government dependency, Leal said. Venezuelans are suffering. Inflation is growing. Store shelves -- including those that stock the country’s mostly imported food -- are often bare because of the country’s unrealistic exchange rate. But if Chavez’s party is pushed out of power, it is also possible that economic and legal reforms would draw some expatriates back to the country. Others will simply watch, and wait.

“Venezuela urgently needs a baton of leadership in the opposition," Leal said. “New faces able to remember and challenge both sides of the pie to think and act as Venezuelans first, instead of focusing so much [on being] identified as 'chavista' (Chavez supporter) or 'opositor' (opposition).”



Hugo Chavez