What will Venezuela look like after Hugo Chávez’s reign? Given the secrecy surrounding Chávez’s cancer status and the growing popularity of Henrique Capriles, Chavez’s rival in the October 7 election, the question is more relevant now than anytime since 2003.
Last week Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting firm I am associated with, published a piece on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS blog on what comes after Chávez. The article outlined five scenarios:
1) Capriles’s loss to Chávez in the election ignites an anti-Chávez “spring.”
2) High-ranking officials beatify Chávez and try to continue Chavismo.
3) The military takes power
4) Venezuela becomes the center of narcotics trafficking in South America
5) Chávez’s successor turns out to be Lula reincarnate.
In these scenarios, the impacts on Venezuela are chiefly the result of Chávez’s double-barreled assault on democratic institutions and strident anti-Americanism.
While not letting Chávez completely off the hook, on February 15 Kevin Casas-Zamora laid the blame on the Venezuelan people, chiding them for accepting the erosion of law enforcement institutions in the country, which now lays claim to the world’s most violent capital city and a country-wide murder rate that exceeds that of the United States and EU combined (Venezuela had almost 20,000 murders in 2011). Casas-Zamora, a former Vice President of Costa Rica, concludes:
When it comes to crime, people adapt. They change their behavior, accept greater encroachment on their civil liberties, and embrace an increasingly cavalier attitude towards the rule of law. The real political implications of crime are to be found more in these beliefs than in potential support for coups, or electoral results.
So, the tenor of post-Chávez forecasting seems to be glum—4 of 5 Wikistrat scenarios involve Venezuela moving backward, as does the Casas-Zamora op-ed. Alas, I’m similarly pessimistic.
Chávez has had some role in Venezuela’s bullet-riddled decline, in part by giving free rein to FARC traffickers and in part due to his refusal to cooperate with US counternarcotic efforts, specifically, and international conventions on illicit financial ties more generally. Still, Venezuela was a hub of cocaine trafficking before Chávez took power and it’s hard to argue that Chávez hasn’t enjoyed popular support through his tenure; according to recent polls 60 percent of Venezuelans still back him.
An important parallel may be the lawless tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, which has become a Hezbollah and drug trafficking bazaar over the past two decades.
Venezuela already has a porous border with Colombia—Chavez’s support of the FARC relies on it. And to the east traffickers working along the Venezuela-Guyana border have made Venezuela the largest disembarkation point for cocaine to Europe. Finally, there’s a great deal of dollar counterfeiting that goes on in Ecuador and Colombia that could easily re-center in Venezuela.
In sum, Colombia-Venezuela-Guyana could become a wholesale zone of piracy, drug trafficking and a hotbed of Islamic insurgency. There’s a nightmare scenario.