Absent the charismatic president -- who has established a bond with, and still inspires faith among, many poor Venezuelans (polls show he retains nearly 50 percent support) -- there is a complete vacuum of political leadership. During the course of Chávez's rule, power has become concentrated in his hands. In many cases, such as removing term limits, measures were carried out in accordance with the Constitution, through referenda. But other decisions aimed at stripping elected officials of their authority were pursued through decree and were the result of more dubious democratic procedures.
Chávez's penchant for riding roughshod over institutions such as the courts and his disdain for the rule of law (as detailed by Human Rights Watch and the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) have meant that few real constraints and checks remain on his authority. To be fair, Venezuela's politics were profoundly flawed before Chávez came on the scene, but there was at least some respect for the country's institutions. Personalistic rule was far less pronounced.
Indeed, in true caudillo (strongman) fashion, Chávez has presented himself as Venezuela's savior, the only man able to stand up to powerful economic and political interests within the country and abroad -- especially the United States, invariably referred to as the imperio, or empire -- and redress historical social injustices. He alone makes all the decisions down to the most mundane level, with the firm conviction that he embodies the will of the people. Having defeated three opponents for the presidency in 1998, 2000, and 2006 -- and having won a 2009 national referendum that removes term limits -- Chávez appears intent on clinging to power.
Governance under Chávez has been disastrous. Despite the ample resources at his disposal -- the country is a major petroleum producer, and high oil prices have subsidized massive social programs -- Chávez has amassed a terrible record. Not only has oil production dropped dramatically, but inflation, at 30 percent, is the highest in Latin America. Recent electricity shortages have aggravated an already acute economic situation, heightening public anxiety. And crime has been out of control.
Nothing more compellingly illustrates Venezuela's governance failures than the current crisis with the country's prisons. Attention has focused on the highly overcrowded Rodeo I and Rodeo II jails, just outside Caracas, where prison riots and an ongoing standoff between thousands of National Guard troops and heavily armed inmates has resulted in 25 deaths since June 12. The prison system in Venezuela -- plagued by human rights abuses and overcrowding -- has long been a serious problem, but it has deteriorated during the Chávez years, reflecting the government's sheer incompetence. Recent journalistic accounts have detailed the extent to which the drug trade and organized crime have become integral to prison life.
Perhaps of greatest concern, the Chávez era has seen the emergence of a society marked by unprecedented levels of polarization and rancor. Chávez exudes the mentality that you're either with us or against us. In a key industry like petroleum, which has become more and more politicized, competent, technically trained professionals have left in huge numbers. Restoring some measure of political comity and sound economic management and performance will not be easy.