What would it mean for Venezuela and Cuba if Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez died or was too incapacitated to govern?
Such a scenario isn’t too hard to imagine. On June 10 while in Cuba, Chavez was rushed to the hospital and into surgery to fix what the Venezuelan government claimed was a pelvic abscess. With the exception of one phone call he made to a Venezuelan television show 10 days ago, the media-obsessed leader hasn’t been heard from or photographed since June 10, fueling speculation that he may not be long with us or at least too ill to govern.*
In such a circumstance, the reigns of power would pass to his vice president, Elias Jaua, a charmless but disciplined ideologue closely tied to the Cuban regime, said Roger Noriega, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former American diplomat in Latin America.
“He was appointed to the job as Plan B for [Raul] Castro, which is if anything happens to Hugo, he has got this guy more loyal to Havana than to his own country in the vice presidential slot,” Noriega told The Daily Caller.
A friendly government in Caracas is important to the Castro regime, says Ray Walser, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, because the Cuban regime is dependent on Venezuelan goodies for its survival.
“It is estimated that the package of assistance – cheap or free oil, payment for Cuban doctors, sports trainers and security personnel runs to as much as $5 billion per year,” he said. “Without Chavez’s aid the Cuban economy would be on life support. Cuba’s ailing duo depend on the health of an ailing Chavez.”
“I really don’t think Raul could hang on to power if they didn’t have the Venezuelans bankrolling what they need,” added Noriega.
But Noriega believes that Jaua could hold to power in the absence of Chavez, at least initially.
“With all he Cuban influence in the apparatus there, my guess is that he would be able to hold on to power for awhile,” he said.
In the long-term, however, Noriega believes the Venezuelan opposition would have an opening.
“What is holding things together now is Chavez’s personal appeal…30%, 35% of the vote among the very poor,” he said. “If that disappears tomorrow, I think the opposition would feel very emboldened. I think their chances of winning in 2012 would be extraordinarily good.”
That is, of course, if Jaua didn’t forestall an election.
“He’s more of a henchman and he might see it better for him to not hold an election…because he couldn’t compete,” Noriega said.
“The country would come unglued in a fight to succeed Chavez,” Walser predicted.
But if the opposition came to power in Venezuela, that very well could be the death knell to the Castro brothers 50-plus year reign.
“I think the Venezuelan opposition would not only cut off the resources they’ve given now,” Noriega said, “I think they would probably start demanding refunds. And that’s going to strangle that regime.”
Unfortunately for the cause of freedom in Latin America, if Noriega’s sources prove correct, Chavez doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
*The article has been updated.