“This reporter has been told that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that has ‘entered the end stage.’ The information and the quote come from a highly respected source close to Chavez and who is in a position to know his medical condition and history. This source says the prognosis is dire and that Chavez is now not expected to live ‘more than a couple of months at most.”
So begins reporter Dan Rather’s startling revelation that Venezuelan populist President Hugo Chavez is much closer to death than many previously speculated. Though the Rumorville had been buzzing for months that Chavez was much worse than officially disclosed, Rather’s report yesterday (if true) would have some serious implications not only for Venezuela, but the entire region of Latin America as well. As if to compound matters even more, Chavez is currently caught up in a campaign battle with Enrique Capriles Radonski. Though polls demonstrate that Chavez is still in the lead, a recent poll by Varianzas has Chavez with 50.7% of the vote and Capriles with 45.5% if the election were to be held today. However, if Chavez were to be forced out of the race due to his deteriorating health, Capriles would trounce any other contender by a considerable margin, according to polling results. Thus, whether or not Chavez is able to stay in the race, which many analysts predict he will do, will be a determining factor for the future of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Yet despite all of the domestic ramifications of an untimely Chavez death, perhaps more troublesome for his so-called ’21st Century Socialism’ is the political effect his death will have upon close allies in the region such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Cuba in particular will be taking a huge economic hit should there be a change in government in Venezuela, as Cuba relies on billions of dollars in oil subsidies from Chavez and his cronies. Furthermore, the leftist wave that shaped the region as Chavez aimed to consolidate his influence in the hemisphere will ( I argue) be in jeopardy as so much of the impetus stemmed from Chavez’s bombastic and populist personality and leadership. Moreover, it is now fairly well-acknowledged truth that the Venezuelan government routinely turns a blind eye to drug traffickers who operate within their borders. Even more shocking is the revelation by Venezuelan ex-patriots and opposition members that the Venezuelan government is actively infiltrated and heavily influenced by drug traffickers. Should these traffickers in Latin America lose such an ally as Chavez in Venezuela, this could have huge repercussions for virtually every other nation in the region that is struggling to combat narco-trafficking. These narco-traffickers would then have to find alternate routes to markets in the US, thereby having to establish their presence on other, more welcoming lands.
For those who are hopeful of positive change in Venezuela and the region with respect to human rights and political development, it may still be too early to predict where the winds will blow after a Chavez death (should it occur in the coming months as speculated). As part of his project on enacting a ’21st Century Socialism’ for his country, Chavez cracked down on almost all independent forms of mass media in the country, and effectively chased out or jailed prominent business leaders and politicians who rejected his agenda. I am personally hopeful for positive change in Venezuela, not so much owing to an early Chavez death, but owing to the fact that the Venezuelan people are tiring of this dictator-in-training’s tired and out-dated rhetoric aimed against the ‘imperialist Yankees’ from the North. Moreover, crime rates in Venezuela have soared since Chavez came to power in 1999. The murder rate, for instance, is the highest in South America and four times that of Mexico (a country that is currently engaged in a ‘war on drugs.’). In short, there is a marked decline in enthusiasm and support for President Chavez, despite him still leading in the presidential polls. I would have predicted that even absent his illness, Chavez would have struggled to remain in power much longer, given the Venezuelan people’s increasing polarization over his rhetoric and positions.
The United States would do well to keep a close eye on developments in Venezuela, given the very real security and political implications to the US. Even the prospect of having Venezuela fall under the categorization of ‘friendly-nation’ status once again is exciting, and could potentially serve as an inroad to an improved perception of the US in the region (if handled correctly). Even if Capriles should pull an upset and triumph over Chavez this coming October, he will nonetheless be keeping many social programs from the Chavez era in place (though perhaps after making a few market-friendly adjustments, but only time will tell). Thus, if the US chooses to stand with Capriles, it will demonstrate to other left-leaning governments (and their populations) in Latin America that the United States is not against social welfare programs or a social safety net; it is against hysterical and irrational language that isolates and damages an entire population, and it is against arbitrary applications of the law against perceived political opponents. The Obama Administration should watch Venezuela developments closely, and potentially use these developments as a way to make positive inroads with a people and a region struggling to develop politically and economically.
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