The exact condition of Hugo Chávez continues to be a Churchillian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Venezuelan president, who won his third reelection last October and has been hospitalized in Cuba for many weeks with cancer, missed his own inauguration in January. In his absence, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's hand-picked successor, has been left in charge of the government indefinitely. But Maduro is no Chávez, lacking both the charisma and the power base of Venezuela's mercurial leader. And it's not just a problem for the chattering classes in Caracas: The question haunting the Latin American hard left, which Chávez has dominated in the last decade, is who will take his place.
In explaining the rise of the political left in Latin America over the past decade, Chávez's persona looms large. Politicians like Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Chávez for laying the groundwork toward a renewed form of populism, Latin America's version of socialism. Chávez's illness has only served to highlight that debt. "The issue of the health of brother Chávez is a problem and a worry not just of Venezuela, but of all the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist people," Morales said in January, speaking from behind a podium reading, "We Are All Chávez." But Chávez's charisma and ruthless political genius fail to explain why he has been able to achieve such regional clout. Through a canny use of petrodollars, subsidies to political allies, and well-timed investments, Chávez has underwritten his Bolivarian revolution with cash -- and lots of it. But that effective constellation of money and charisma has now come out of alignment, leaving a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez's political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.
Several Latin American leaders would like to succeed him, but no one meets the necessary conditions: Cuba's blessing, a fat wallet, a country that carries enough demographic, political and economic weight, potent charisma, a willingness to take almost limitless risks, and sufficient autocratic control to allow him or her to devote major time to permanent revolution away from home.
What will happen is partly in Cuba's hands. Because Cuba has made Venezuela into its foreign-policy proxy, the Castro brothers need Caracas to remain the capital of the movement for it to retain any vitality. While Cuba is dependent on the roughly 100,000 barrels of heavily subsidized oil Chávez's regime supplies to Cuba daily, the island nation has a grip on Venezuela's intelligence apparatus and social programs. Chávez himself acknowledged last year that there are almost 45,000 Cuban "workers" manning many of his programs, though other sources speak of an even larger number. This strong connection allows Cuba to exercise a vicarious influence over many countries in the region. Caracas's clout in Latin America stems from Petrocaribe, a mechanism for helping Caribbean and Central American countries purchase cheap oil, and ALBA, an ideological alliance that promotes "21st century socialism." The combination of the two gives Caracas, and therefore Havana, some authority over the politics of 17 other countries.
What does this mean for the future of the left? Essentially that Cuba will do its utmost to prop up Maduro. Chávez's chosen man will never be a revered figure -- his talents as a politician are lackluster -- but with Havana's backing and control of the money funneled to the region's leaders, he will retain some of Chavez's stature. In recent months, he and what might be called the civilian nucleus of the Venezuelan government have been a constant presence in Havana, where they have relied on the information supplied to them by Cuba about Chávez's real condition. This clique is comprised mainly of Rosa Virginia, Chávez's eldest daughter; her husband Jorge Arreaza, who is also a minister; Cilia Flores, Maduro's wife and the prosecutor general of the regime; and, finally, Rafael Ramírez, the head of the oil giant PDVSA.
Maduro has made most of his key political announcements from Havana, often flanked by some of these people as a way to consolidate his legitimacy inside the Venezuelan military, where he has rivals, and of course the Latin American left writ large. It seems to have worked for now: The region's left lent him dutiful support through various regional bodies when the opposition denounced the arrangements that have turned him into an acting president indefinitely. In a statement put out by Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, the Organization of American States supported the constitutional arrangements in Venezuela in the wake of Chavez´s absence -- and incurred the ire of MUD, the united opposition.
Critical in all of this is the money at Maduro's disposal. The sales of PDVSA, the state-owned oil cash cow, amounted to $124.7 billion in 2011, of which one-fifth went to the state in the form of taxes and royalties, and another fourth was channeled directly into a panoply of social programs. This kind of management makes for very bad economics, a reason why the company needs to resort to debt to fund its basic capital expenditures, and for decreasing productivity, but it remains crucial for the regime and the Latin American left. Funding social programs at home and subsidizing oil shipments abroad, as well as giving cash to various foreign entities, is in good part what makes Caracas the epicenter of the left. Consequently, the support Maduro enjoys from Cuba and the money at his disposal offsets his lack of Chávez-like charisma.