Hugo Chavez has ruled Venezuela for almost 15 years. During this period, in aggressive and authoritarian style, he has attempted to convert the country into another Cuba. In order to consolidate his power he has used a policy of handouts to the poorer segments of society, which make up almost 2/3 of the total population. This policy has mostly been financed by oil income, estimated at some $700 billion during these years. Even this significant amount of money has been insufficient for his purposes and he has had to resort to increasing debt, which now stands at some $150 billion, mostly through loans from China, Japan, Russia and commercial papers issued by from the state oil company PDVSA.
His attempt has essentially failed. Today Venezuela is in deep financial, political and social disarray but is far from the Cuban model. Civic resistance from at least half of the population (the better educated half), has been too strong for Chavez to overcome. At his departure Chavez will leave behind a country characterized by strong political instability and deep economic and social problems, in dire need to recover a sense of national purpose.
Regardless which scenario prevails, the underlying characteristic of Venezuelan life for the next five years will be a medium to high level of economic, social and political conflict.
I visualize three main Venezuelan scenarios for the next five years: (1), A Cuban Regency; (2), A Swing to Democracy; and (3), a Hybrid Transition.
(1) A Cuban Regency
This would be represented by the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, which would amount to a Cuban regency in Venezuela. Maduro is ignorant, weak and politically incompetent and cannot possibly lead the country without the strong guidance of Cuban advisers. However, he could be elected because Chavez named him as his successor.
If elected, he probably would not be able to survive politically for long, due to mounting economic and social problems which will easily exceed his managerial capabilities. If elected, there would be a high probability he might not be able to end his normal mandate.
Although Maduro has the popular vote he lacks support among the military and sufficient political support inside the party and the state machinery.
(2) A Clear Swing to Democracy
This could come about through the electoral win of an opposition candidate. The most likely candidate would be Henrique Capriles, who fought a great battle last year against the all-powerful machinery of the state. Not having to run against Chavez his chances would be significantly better this time around. Capriles has been behaving in a manner designed to attract Chavez followers, using a rhetoric that resembles Chavez’s populism. However, this strategy is a double edged sword that could cost him as many followers as he might gain. Other opposition leaders such as Antonio Ledezma, Diego Arria and Maria Corina Machado favor a more radical break from all that chavismo represents but they do not have the required political support to emerge as the candidate of the opposition. An opposition government would start the country on its long and difficult journey back to back to institutional democracy. The connection with Cuba and other rogue states would be severed, major figures from Chavismo would be separated from their jobs, some would be legally indicted for corruption, human rights violations or drug trafficking.
(3) A Hybrid, gradual transition
This could come about by the emergence of Diosdado Cabello as the presidential candidate of the chavismo and winner in the election and his determination to bring the opposition closer to his government, to allow for a gradual transition away from chavismo to democracy. Cabello is no Cuban lover and is ideologically less extreme than Chavez.
A similar effect could be accomplished if Capriles, as winner of the presidency, decided on a similar strategy of reconciliation. Such a scenario can be pragmatic and favor stability but it would leave significant problems of political ethics unresolved. The Chavez team is guilty of great crimes against the nation that should not go unpunished.
There are multiple nuances and variations on these three main scenarios that would influence the rate at which the country turns away from chavismo and the level of redress the Venezuelan nation will be willing to demand from the crimes committed by the Chavez regime.