There are powerful men in Venezuela who are far worse than Hugo Chávez. And if Obama keeps "leading from behind" in Latin America, that's who we very well might get.
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.
Russia is considering making $1-2 billion in payments in the weeks ahead to lock in natural gas and oil deals signed with Chávez. Some in Moscow, however, are weary of the Venezuelan shakedown, particularly because they know that Chávez's days are numbered. Russian firms are deciding now whether to double down on the Chávez regime, which has been a reliable customer of more than $13 billion in Russian arms, or wait to see if a successor government will honor its agreements in the oil and gas sector.
The Soviet-style succession that corrupt Chavistas and their Cuban handlers are trying to impose on the Venezuelan people is anything but a done deal. There is room and time for friends of democracy to play a constructive role.
Cabello and company, my sources tell me, are far more likely to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression if they can count on support from Moscow and Beijing. The Chavistas intend to promise continued cheap oil and sweetheart contracts to leverage this support. Discreet U.S. diplomacy -- working in concert with like-minded allies -- can help scuttle these plans. The Chinese and Russians may not be eager to defend yet another violent pariah regime, and Washington should rally Latin American leaders to draw the line against a Syria scenario in the Western Hemisphere.
At the heart of the Chavista strategy is a narco-state, led by men with well-documented ties to narco-trafficking. The White House should instruct U.S. law enforcement agencies to smash the foundations of this regime. One Venezuelan general or corrupt judge in a witness box in a U.S. federal courthouse will strike the regime at the very top and destroy any illusion of legitimacy or survivability.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been virtually blind to the Iranian presence in Venezuela. If they were instructed to kick over the rocks to see what is crawling underneath, I am convinced that they would discover a grave and growing threat against the security of the United States and its allies in the region. Such evidence will help motivate Venezuela's neighbors to take a stand against an even more unaccountable regime taking shape in Caracas.
Venezuela's military is not a monolith, and Chávez has undermined his own succession strategy by giving the narco-generals such visible and operational roles. The fact that the narco-generals will be more willing to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression to keep power and carry the "narco" label sets them apart from the rank-and-file soldiers and institutionalist generals. The United States military still carries a lot of weight with these men. A simple admonition to respect their constitution and serve their people may split the bulk of the force away from the narcos and deny them the means to impose their will. (Institutionalist generals may react in a similar way to news that Iran is conducting secret operations on Venezuelan territory that are both unconstitutional and a dangerous provocation.)
There is much the United States and the international community can do without interfering in Venezuela's internal politics. Although the leaders of the democratic opposition are determined to keep their distance from Washington, they must at least show the flag in the United States and other key countries to elicit the solidarity they deserve. Moreover, anyone who thinks the opposition can take on Cuba, China, Russia, Iran, drug traffickers, and Hezbollah without international backing is just not thinking straight.
Unfortunately, the career U.S. diplomats in Washington responsible for Venezuela have spent the last two years downplaying the mess there and the three years before that neglecting it altogether. So if there is any hope for U.S. leadership, it will require the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama. Alas, in our own neighborhood, "leading from behind" is not an option.
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