Skip to main content

After Chavez, a power vacuum

By Carl Meacham, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EST, Wed March 6, 2013
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets actor Sean Penn after a meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on March 5, 2011. Penn thanked Chavez for the support given by the Venezuelan government to his nongovernmental organization, which benefits victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets actor Sean Penn after a meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on March 5, 2011. Penn thanked Chavez for the support given by the Venezuelan government to his nongovernmental organization, which benefits victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
HIDE CAPTION
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
Chavez's famous friends
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carl Meacham: With Chavez's death, Venezuela faces difficult transition
  • He says Chavez helped reduce poverty, but at cost to economy as he mismanaged oil wealth
  • He says now power vacuum pits opposition against Chavez-picked VP; military will be key
  • Meacham: Chavez-backed regimes will feel impact; other nations must urge fair elections

Editor's note: Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Follow CSIS on Twitter @CSIS

(CNN) -- The passing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from cancer, long expected despite his condition being shrouded in secrecy, has opened a Pandora's box of questions concerning Venezuela's future.

The Venezuelan constitution holds that power should have been given to the leader of the Venezuelan Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, once Chavez could not attend his own inauguration and new elections should have been held within 30 days. This did not happen.

Now, Nicolás Maduro, current vice president and Chávez's hand-picked successor, will likely face divisions both from within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the Venezuelan military to keep his hold on power. But he also is likely to receive a challenge for the presidency from Henrique Capriles, current governor of Miranda and former presidential nominee, when and if an election is held.

Carl Meacham
Carl Meacham

Conflict among the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the military and the opposition will largely determine whether Venezuela has a smooth and peaceful transition or one that descends into violence as various factions lobby for power.

Since winning his first election in December 1998, Chávez dramatically reoriented Venezuela's government and economy. His efforts have particularly focused on poverty reduction, providing housing and health services for the poor. Although Venezuelan poverty data are heavily disputed, most figures show poverty has indeed fallen.

World Bank statistics show a decline from 50 percent of the population in 1999 to 32 percent in 2011. Inequality has declined as well; Venezuela has the most equal income distribution in Latin America.

News: Chavez leaves a revolutionary legacy

The Venezuelan economy has not fared as well, with economic growth from 1999-2010 averaging a mere 2.7%, according to International Monetary Fund figures. This stands out, given the strong economic performance of other Latin American economies during this time and high global oil prices since the mid-2000s; oil exports comprise roughly 95 percent of export earnings for Venezuelans.

Despite this windfall, the Chávez government has done little to diversify the country away from its oil-dependence. At the same time, by using oil proceeds to fund social initiatives at home, support for Cuba and other regional initiatives, such as PetroCaribe, which provides oil to mostly Caribbean countries on generous repayment terms, oil production has declined nearly 25 percent since 2001.

Vice president: Hugo Chavez is dead
Chavez: From failed coup to presidency
2006: Chavez calls Bush 'the devil'
Amanpour: Hugo Chavez had cult following

The state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. lacks capital to maintain existing production or exploit new reserves, notably the oil-rich Orinoco Belt. This, and the horrible mismanagement of the company, have destroyed what was once Venezuela's industrial shining star.

And now, with Chávez's death, a power vacuum has opened in Venezuela.

Under the political coalition of Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (the Democratic Unity Roundtable) and Capriles, the Venezuelan opposition is the most united it has been under Chávez. But Capriles' 11-point defeat in October's presidential election, coupled with Chávez's allies winning 20 of 23 gubernatorial elections in December, underscores the fact that the opposition still holds little power.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro may not have the current president's appeal with Venezuelans, but he will still head a party with considerable influence.

At the same time, the reaction of the Venezuelan military will be key to the transition.

The military can be organized into three camps: one is the institutional group, focused on the effectiveness of the military and largely non-politicized, and then there is the constitutional camp.

With Chávez's death, Diosdado Cabello, current president of the National Assembly, would preside over the country while new elections are called in 30 days. Speculation is rampant that Cabello, a former Venezuelan soldier who participated in the 1992 coup with Chávez, has stronger support within the military and they may push him as the next candidate.

Finally, there is the pro-Chávez camp that has committed itself to the revolution and will likely follow the late president's wishes and push for Maduro.

iReport: Tyrant or hero?

Chávez allies have reason to be worried. Under PetroCaribe, members received generous terms for oil purchases, with payments as low as 5% of market value, and the remainder paid off through generous loan terms spread over 25 years. Even better, payment could be made in manufactured goods, with a barter system replacing payments in numerous instances.

Cuba has been the prime beneficiary, receiving roughly 100,000 barrels of oil per day, which meets two-thirds of its daily requirement. If Venezuela's next leader were to end the program, or even reduce the generous terms, many countries would see a shock as import bills rise (not to mention having to face a public forced to pay much higher energy prices). Absent Chávez's leadership, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas might also find itself increasingly marginalized.

Extra-regional actors that have recently gained a foothold in Latin America could find themselves losing influence. Iran in particular will have lost its biggest supporter in the region and may find future efforts to engage stymied without Chávez's popular support. The Russian government, which has benefited from Venezuela's recent arms purchases, will likely find itself with a reduced footprint in Latin America as well. Furthermore, other Chavez-supported regimes throughout the world, from Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the North Korean government, will likely feel the effects of his death.

For the United States, oil supplies could be an important concern. While Venezuelan imports have decreased in importance in recent years, falling to 8% of imports in 2011, it remains the fourth-biggest supplier to the U.S. market. If the transition were to turn violent and exports dropped, U.S. consumers could face higher prices and U.S. economic growth could take a hit.

Chavez's passing also opens questions on narco-trafficking in Venezuela. Transnational crime has flourished under Chávez, with Venezuela serving as a major hub for shipment of illegal narcotics. Not only has Venezuelan cooperation with the United States declined, the United States has also added several high-level Venezuelan officials to its Foreign Narcotics Kingpin list, including former defense minister Henry Rangel Silva, for their complicity with transnational crime organizations and support for the FARC.

A prolonged struggle for power would likely give these groups even greater space to operate within Venezuela. At the same time, this could produce spillover effects in Colombia, whose recent security gains, with the help of U.S. assistance through Plan Colombia, may be tested if the FARC can move more freely between the two countries.

If there is a transition and new elections are called for in the coming months, regional leaders will need to play a key role in calling for a peaceful and democratic transition. The United States -- with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Canada -- should urge for free and fair elections.

Undoubtedly, Venezuela will remain divided no matter the next president, but fair and transparent elections will help ensure the next administration has the political capital to tackle needed reforms -- from a stagnant economy to rising crimes rates, rampant transnational crime and the rebuilding of the nation's powerful state-owned oil company -- that will benefit all Venezuelans.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl Meacham.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT