During that time Venezuelans have heard and read no words and seen no photographs of their ruler — not even a tweet. But his closest aides have been regularly trooping to Havana for meetings with Raul and Fidel Castro, who are openly steering Venezuela’s crisis. Last week Chavez’s vice president, Nicolas Maduro, produced what he said was a Chavez-signed decree appointing a new foreign minister, prompting a furious debate about whether the purported signature — the closest thing to a Chavez sign of life since Dec. 10 — was authentic.
All this would be more amusing if the stakes were not so high. The demise of Chavez — if that is what is to happen — could open the way to epochal change in a region that for a decade has been divided, and sometimes polarized, between rapidly growing and modernizing democracies such as Mexico, Chile and Brazil and a bloc of authoritarian-minded, anti-American, populist throwbacks led by Venezuela. To be sure, the modernizers won the ideological battle long ago — Chavez’s popularity ratings among Latin Americans are lower than any leader in the hemisphere other than Fidel Castro.
But thanks to Venezuela’s oil wealth, Chavez has managed to hold together a bloc that includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and, to a lesser degree, Argentina. Their leaders have followed his lead in entrenching themselves in power, persecuting opponents and forging alliances with Iran. They are well compensated for their trouble: Daniel Ortega receives and personally disposes of $500 million a year from Chavez, an amount equal to 7 percent of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product. Then there is Cuba: Chavez supplies the Castros with 100,000 barrels of oil a day and a total subsidy worth more than 5 percent of Cuba’s GDP. Without that lucre, the communist regime might finally collapse.
No wonder the Castros are doing their best to keep their golden goose alive — and to try and install another when he goes. Chavez’s last public act was to name as his successor Maduro, who has been a Cuban protege since his post-high-school days. If the regime has ignored the Venezuelan constitution, which calls for the National Assembly president to take over when the president is incapacitated, it’s because that would promote an alternative: Diosdado Cabello, who is closer to the Venezuelan military than to Havana.
The likely Cuban strategy is to wait for Chavez’s death, then hope that Maduro can, by hook or crook, win the snap presidential election required by the constitution. It’s a slightly dangerous strategy: Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who won 45 percent of the vote in October’s presidential election, has polled higher than Maduro in the past. But Brazil and the United States have warned the regime against trying to avoid an election, and Maduro will be able to count on Chavez sympathy votes immediately after his death.