Venezuela -- a medium sized, middle-income country -- has used petro-diplomacy to achieve a degree of international relevance unprecedented in its history. As Chávez himself mused in what may well come to be remembered as his farewell speech: "We have made strategic alliances as has never been done before. Venezuela in Mercosur, who would have thought? Venezuela in a strategic alliance with China, Russia, so many other countries...."
Yet the redirecting of state funds toward client regimes in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua (to say nothing of financing for leftwing candidacies in elections as far afield as Mexico and of generous gifts of oil and money to comparatively wealthy countries such as Argentina and even parts of the United States) have all proven highly controversial. Many Venezuelans, even from among Chávez's inner circle, might prefer to introduce more Perónist priorities by focusing on domestic concerns such as unemployment, crime, and poverty.
Yet Chávez has used his recent choice of a successor to once again demonstrate his aspiration to a broader international legacy. Nicolás Maduro, his handpicked political heir, has impeccable Marxist credentials and close relationships within staunch Venezuelan allies such as Cuba. Until recently, Maduro had been only one of several candidates being discussed for the role, his chief rival being Diosdado Cabello: the current head of the National Assembly.
Cabello, while less ideologically "revolutionary," has greater support among crucial domestic constituencies such as the country's armed forces and the so-called "Boligarchs," politically well-connected tycoons who have made millions under the regime. The snub to Cabello came as a surprise to many, since he had been regarded as something of a favorite for the role. It is rumored that he might not be brushed aside so easily.
In a sense, the political rivalry between these men illustrates chavismo's divergent strains: Cabello, the Perón-style pragmatist, versus Maduro, the "Ché-vista." While the latter may dominate at present, the underlying tension between the two camps cannot help but cause division. The socialist ideologues and internationalists who make up Maduro's base of support seem highly dependent upon Chávez himself for continued influence. In contrast, Cabello's supporters are almost certain to remain influential regardless. The rich and the well armed are always influential.
Venezuela's current constitution (the 26th in its history) has only been around only since 1999, and the departure of Chávez would mark the first presidential transition since it was introduced. Many terms and procedures remain poorly defined, and the potential for jockeying and for creative interpretation is high. Yet any potential infighting over the transition will have to wait. As long as Chávez lives, chavismo remains united and subject to his personal caprice, and the country's highly politicized Supreme Court has proven ready to absolve an unending stream of constitutional violations, buying time in hopes the patient may yet return and recover.
And return he might. This week both his brother Argenis and Bolivian president Evo Morales, a close ally, suggested that El Comandante's return to Caracas may be imminent. Even if he does make it back home, however, the writing may well be on the wall. If rumors of the seriousness of his illness are true, his reappearance is likely to be ephemeral: A short-term ploy to stabilize Maduro's position (both publicly and within the party) rather then a first step towards eventual recovery.