Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has tried for 10 months to conceal the fact that he is losing his bout with cancer, determined to appear in command of his revolutionary regime and the nation's future. This past Holy Week, however, television cameras captured him pleading for his life before a crucifix in his hometown church, his mother looking on without the slightest glint of hope on her face. Chávez's raw emotion startled his inner circle and led some to question his mental health. As a result, according to my sources inside the presidential palace, Minister of Defense Gen. Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chávez's deteriorating condition causes any hint of instability.
Pretty dramatic stuff. So why isn't anyone outside Venezuela paying attention? Some cynics in that country still believe Chávez is hyping his illness for political advantage, while his most fervent followers expect him to make a miraculous recovery. The democratic opposition is cautiously preparing for a competitive presidential election set for Oct. 7 -- against Chávez or a substitute. And policymakers in Washington and most regional capitals are slumbering on the sidelines.
In my estimation, the approaching death of the Venezuelan caudillo could put the country on the path toward a political and social meltdown. The military cadre installed by Chávez in January already is behaving like a de facto regime determined to hold onto power at all costs. And Havana, Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing are moving to protect their interests. If U.S. President Barack Obama were to show some energetic engagement as Chávez fades, he could begin to put the brakes on Venezuela's slide, reverse Chávismo's destructive agenda, and reclaim a role for the United States in its own neighborhood. But if he fails to act, there will be hell to pay.
Sources close to Chávez's medical team tell me that for months, his doctors have been doing little more than treating symptoms, trying to stabilize their workaholic patient long enough to administer last-ditch chemo and radiation therapies. In that moment of Chávez's very public prayer for a miracle, he set aside his obsession with routing his opposition or engineering a succession of power to hardline loyalists. Perhaps he knows that his lieutenants and foreign allies are behaving as if he were already dead -- consolidating power, fashioning a "revolutionary junta," and plotting repressive measures.
One of them is longtime Chávista operator and military man Diosdado Cabello, who was installed by Chávez to lead the ruling party as well as the National Assembly in January. Cabello's appointment was meant to reassure a powerful cadre of narcomilitares -- Gen. Rangel Silva, Army Gen. Cliver Alcalá, retired intelligence chief Gen. Hugo Carvajal, and half a dozen other senior officers who have been branded drug "kingpins" by the U.S. government. These ruthless men will never surrender power and the impunity that goes with it -- and they have no illusions that elections will confer "legitimacy" on a Venezuelan narco-state, relying instead on billions of dollars in ill-gotten gain and tens of thousands of soldiers under their command.
Chavismo's civilian leadership -- including Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, Vice President Elías Jaua, and the president's brother, Adán Chávez, the governor of the Chávez family's home state of Barinas -- are eager to vindicate their movement's ideological agenda at the polls this fall. Maduro is extraordinarily loyal to the president, and is considered by Venezuelan political observers as the most viable substitute on the ballot. Above all, these men crave political power and will jockey to make themselves indispensable to the military leaders who are calling the shots today.
Cuba's Fidel and Raúl Castro are desperate to preserve the life-blood of Venezuelan oil that sustains their bankrupt regime. According to a source who was briefed on conversations in Cuba, Raúl has counseled Chávez to prepare to pass power to a "revolutionary junta"; Venezuelans who are suspicious of the Castros expect them to pack the junta with men loyal to Havana. Cabello does not trust the Castros, but with thousands of Cuban intelligence officers and triggermen on the ground in Venezuela, the Castro brothers are a force to be reckoned with.
The Chinese have provided more than $20 billion in quickie loans to Chávez in the last 18 months, which are to be repaid by oil at well below the market price. Most of these funds were paid into Chávez's slush funds before the Chinese knew of his terminal condition. Another $4 billion is being negotiated now, but my sources in the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry say the Chinese are demanding new guarantees. Beijing also is angling to ensure that any post-Chávez government will honor its sweetheart deals. However, these predatory contracts are being scrutinized by leading opposition members of the National Assembly.
Iran is more dependent than ever on its banks and other ventures in Venezuela as a means to launder billions in funds to evade tightening international financial sanctions. Companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force, and illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs have invested millions in infrastructure in shadowy facilities throughout Venezuela. Tehran will struggle to keep its beachhead near U.S. soil, which is vital to its survival strategy in the critical months ahead.