Venezuela After Hugo Chavez: What's Next?


But the Chavistas cannot wait for Chavez forever. Doubt is filling the vacuum created by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's refusal to release any substantial information about his medical condition. (One opposition parliamentarian asked whether the letter from Havana was written by Cuban leader Raul Castro.)

From Vice President Maduro, 50, who has not left Chavez's side in Cuba, there have only been scattered statements meant to assure the public that the president is recovering, even if the situation remains "delicate." A brother-in-law has tweeted updates.

And there are economic difficulties waiting up the road. Despite sitting on one of the world's healthiest oil reserves, Venezuela is having trouble financing Chavista social programs. The Venezuelan bolivar is expected to be devalued in the coming months, a decision likely to mean at least a short-term struggle with inflation.

For now, though, the party's grip on power, along with its ability to run a strong campaign, is strong enough. In an ironic turn, the Chavistas best chance at prolonging "the revolution" sin Chavez is to ditch Chavez.

All they would have to do is nothing at all. Barring an extrajudicial power grab, they will be faced in weeks or months with new elections and, in all likelihood, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 40.

The governor of Miranda, the second largest state in Venezuela, Capriles leads the Justice First party. He lost to Chavez in the Oct. 7 election, 55-44 percent. Both Jaua and Cabello have run and lost governor's races against Capriles, Cabello failing to unseat him in a December governor's race, but Maduro, the bus driver turned union leader, is the heir.

"If Maduro loses [an election to an opposition candidate], that is where the commotion takes place," Diana Villiers Negroponte, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News. "That is where the militia will contest the result. That is when you will head to Caracas with cameras."

The Venezuelan ruling class established under Chavez has "commercial and financial interests to protect," she said. "You cannot tell how they will act."

But even as these ties remain strong, with each day that passes, the memory of Chavez is diminished. And as he withers, both in the flesh and the Venezuelan body politic, so, too, does the likelihood that Maduro or Cabello can win a fair election.

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