America / Foreign Policy

Hugo Chavez’s Health Could Have a Number of Consequences for the Western Hemisphere

All eyes are on poll numbers, gay marriage, the economy, and most definitely not focused on Venezuela. Well, in my opinion, the United States might want to keep an eye on the current electoral situation in Venezuela and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s health is a major part of the electoral picture in that country. There could be a regime change in that oil-rich country to the south, and it could have wide-sweeping effects on hemispheric relations.

There has been significant coverage of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s battle with cancer, even if the details are sparse. However, I believe that it looks more and more like he is losing his personal battle with the disease, as evidenced by his repeated and lengthening trips to Cuba for treatment. As I have noted in previous posts, Venezuela has a presidential election coming up in October, and I believe that if Chavez runs, he will “win.” But it seems even Chavez is aware of his mortality, recently saying, “Christ… give me life, because I still have things to do for the people and this country. Do not take me yet.” He has also gone so far as to mandate the formation of a “Council of State,” to serve as the “highest body of advisers” to the government, as designated by the Venezuelan constitution. According to analysts, the members of this council were predictable and include representatives from Chavez’s inner-circle. These events beg a few questions: will Chavez’s health prevent him from running in October? If he does run and wins, how long will he be capable of governing? If he cannot run, who will take his place? Will there be a power struggle because he is yet to name a successor?

The United States must begin to take this situation seriously. Unfortunately, the United States has other concerns, namely its own presidential election in November. The questions posed above, and the variety of possible answers could lead to a host of other concerns that could destabilize the region, many of which could impact US national security and its relationships with other Latin American countries.

It is well known by analysts, pundits, and politicians that Venezuela and the Chavez regime are deeply involved in the global narcotics trade. I have heard many regional experts of varying ideological and political positions claim that to truly “win” the war on drugs, Chavez must first be removed from power. Well, this may finally come to be, but then what happens? I am not optimistic that his successor will change Venezuela’s role in the drug trade, and I fear that the loss of Chavez might complicate an already complex situation. Part of this intricate situation is the close relationship that Chavez has with the Colombian guerrilla insurgency (FARC). If a power struggle occurs in Venezuela it may offer the FARC a safe(r) haven to retreat from the progress made by the Colombian government. Chavez also has improved relations with Colombia under Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, after relations had been frozen with former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Under Uribe, Colombia and Venezuela were on the brink of war. Colombia is a close US ally in the wars on drugs and terrorism, and a deterioration of the situation in Venezuela could severely impact the progress made in both of these areas, as well as the stabilization of Venezuelan-Colombian relations.

Possibly more worrisome is the impact the loss of Chavez could pose to the region because of the leadership role he has taken. Chavez began the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) to counterbalance US influence and ideology in the region. He is the undisputed leader of this movement, and there may be a gap in leadership of the leftist-bloc of countries that make up ALBA if Chavez is no longer spearheading the movement. Many of Chavez’s allies are also dependent on the generous shipments of subsidized oil that he has used to curry favor throughout the region. If these shipments were suddenly halted or disrupted for a significant period of time, the dependent countries could potentially be forced to default on their debts, or worse. Countries reliant on Venezuelan aid and the Chavez regime would need to look elsewhere for aid—especially during a time when the United States is struggling economically and there would almost assuredly be domestic backlash to increasing the US foreign aid budget with an astronomical deficit. These dependent countries might find willing partners in China, Iran, or Russia, which would most likely further complicate hemispheric relations.

With such significant regional destabilization possible, the United States and its leaders must begin to pay more attention to the issue of Chavez’s health, and possible outcomes if it fails and Venezuela and the region lose his leadership. I do not propose to have the answer to all of the questions I raised earlier, but I sure hope that the United States is in the process of creating contingency plans. The sooner I know that the United States has begun to take this matter and possible implications seriously, the better I will sleep at night.

– Max Rava

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