This post is perhaps a bit late to the party, but still seems relevant as it remains a developing situation, with Hugo Chávez undergoing a third round of chemotherapy, this time while remaining in Venezuela. For both supporters and detractors of his presidency, one indisputable fact over the past 12 years has been the centrality of Chávez himself to the political movement he leads. Much like with Perón in Argentina, while there is likely a movement without him, the cohesiveness of the movement depends almost entirely on Chávez’s personal leadership. As such, his health is of critical importance to any possible Venezuelan future.
As I said before, I believe that chavismo will continue to exist in Venezuela as a potent political force long after Chávez disappears both from the Venezuelan political scene, but also after his death (whether these two moments occur separately or at the same time is a different question). In Argentina, peronismo remains the dominant political force even today, more than 35 years after its namesake’s death in 1973. Therefore, any discussion of Chávez’s health—and by implication, the effect his sudden death might have on Venezuelan politics—should assume that his movement will continue on long after his death. What is more important to consider, I believe, is the effect that his removal as acting leader would have on the movement at large, as well as what spaces might be created for opposition groups within the Venezuelan political arena.
An important caveat before discussing any of this is how Chávez is already relatively electorally weak. It seems very unlikely, considering Venezuela’s sputtering economy, shockingly high levels of violent crime, and food, water and power shortages that Chávez or his successor would win an election by the same margins he won by in 2000 and 2006—when he won more than 59% both times. Additionally, in the parliamentary elections in 2010, parties in opposition to Chávez won a majority of the vote, though Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) won roughly two thirds of the seats in the National Assembly thanks to some creative redistricting which favored sections of the country loyal to the government. This all indicates that chavismo does not dominate popular opinion in Venezuela like it did as recently as five years ago—though it could be argued that it dominates the government to such a degree that this fact hardly matters.
In my view, this makes a post-Chávez splintering of the movement all the more likely if that era begins in the near future. Without Chávez uniting a somewhat disparate coalition and dictating official policy, it is hard to imagine that infighting would not break out among different factions within the movement, especially since the movement is at its least popular moment ever. I can’t say how these fissures would manifest themselves, but my guess would be between a more social democratic wing and a more radical, pro-Cuba wing, based on the types of defections that have occurred in the last several years, and the direction Chávez and his cabinet have seemed to prefer.
None of this means that chavismo would immediately lose power if it were to lose its leader, or even if it were to splinter due to infighting. The Venezuelan opposition—while more united than it has been at any point since 1998—remains diverse and is mainly united by an opposition to Chávez. Two recent examples in Latin America show the potential pitfalls of such a disparate political system. The first is in Peru, where three centrist candidates split more than 45% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections earlier this year, propelling current president Ollanta Humala (considered a more radical candidate from the left) and Keiko Fujimori (the unapologetic daughter and former first lady of former president and strongman Alberto Fujimori) to a runoff. It is highly likely that if any one of those three had dropped out of the race, that one of the other two would currently be president of Peru. However personal ego and a lack of uniting force (like established parties in the US) kept all three out. In Argentina, a situation more directly similar to this hypothetical situation in Venezuela is playing out. With elections set for October of this year, the opposition appeared last year to be working toward advancing a single candidate to face off against either Néstor or Cristina Kirchner in the election. As Néstor was seen as the real source of power—despite his wife actually being president—and was considered the more likely candidate, the opposition was galvanized to unite to defeat him. However, when he died suddenly last October from a heart attack, the opposition again splintered, and Cristina appears likely to cruise to victory this October, perhaps without even facing a runoff.
The opposition in Venezuela appears to be even more tenuously united than the one in Argentina, and therefore would be very vulnerable to collapsing back into infighting without the specter of Chávez to keep them focused on a common goal. In effect, Chávez could be the main force holding together both his own movement and the opposition, and without him, both could break apart into many smaller factions. Any chavista faction, though, would be able to draw on his support base, which remains considerable and far larger than any single other party’s or politician’s in Venezuela. What this all means is that while the exit of Chávez from the political scene because of his current illness could bring a lot flux to the players in the political arena, it might, in some ways, benefit his movement by taking away the one uniting force among the opposition.
Of course, this barely considers the incumbent factors benefitting Chávez’s supporters, such as the huge influence of the state in virtually every aspect of Venezuelan life. Even without significant popular support, or Chávez, this could be enough to keep chavistas in power though fair-enough elections for the time being.