Hugo Chavez's Cancer: When a Whole Country Hangs On the Health of One Man

The recent absence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez due to cancer shows just how indispensable he is to his country's political system. And this is a problem.

The relationship between Hugo Chavez and Venezuela is a sick one. As long as the country's political system relies so heavily on only one man, chaos will always be one medical emergency away. What Venezuela needs is governance by institutions, not charisma. Failure to reform will continue to deliver dysfunctional governance — something that could have dire consequences not only in Venezuela but also in the rest of the region.

Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has fostered a cult-like following based on his personality. The popularity he enjoys has brought him almost to the point of deification among his supporters. This emphasis on Chavez the man is nowhere more apparent than in the term "Chavismo", which describes his and his supporters' ideology. 

Chavez has also positioned himself as the crucial tie that binds together the civilian and military portions of the ruling elite. There is no other person capable of bringing together these disparate groups. Very much by design, Chavez has made himself indispensable.

This leaves Venezuelans with a government not able to run without Hugo Chavez, and certainly not designed to be able to pick a replacement

According to the Venezuelan constitution, the legislature elects a temporary replacement for the chief executive should the president become incapable of performing his duties for an extended period of time. If the president dies or is otherwise permanently incapable of performing his responsibilities, new elections are to be held within 30 days. 

But the legislature appointed speaker Diosdado Cabello as interim president, and the courts have decided Chavez's absence is not to be considered indefinite, meaning elections wouldn't be held as long as there's a chance that Chavez could come back.

Complicating matters, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his handpicked successor to run in any hypothetical election should he be unable to assume office. The Chavista elites seem to be coalescing around these two leaders, making for a dangerous split.

For the moment, the elites have called a timeout; the factions making up the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are all positioning themselves in the event Chavez can't re-assume the presidency, but no one wants to do anything too overt in case El Comandante does come back. 

But if Chavez can't recover and the situation turns into a political dogfight, the fallout will be massive. The resulting struggle would rip apart the Chavista popular base as multiple figureheads each try to take on Chavez's popular legitimacy. 

Venezuelan foreign policy includes financial support for what the regime considers kindred 'Bolivarian' spirits. Instability in Venezuela could ripple out into other states like Cuba, which Venezuela directly subsidizes. If financial lifelines from Caracas suddenly get cut, it could leave financial dependents in a bind.   

But Venezuelan instability could trouble more than just Chavez's Bolivarian comrades. 

Brazil has been consolidating its leadership in the region for some time. It's the de facto head of MERCOSUR, the regional trade bloc encompassing Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Venezuela. Bolivia is in the process of becoming a member and some other countries have partial-member status.

Brasilia risks being put in a difficult situation if things in Caracas get too far out of hand. Venezuela was only fully admitted to the group in 2012 as Paraguay had been blocking it's full membership, citing the lack of democracy.

In the same year, Paraguay was suspended when then President Fernando Lugo was ousted in what's been called a legislative coup

By temporarily suspending Paraguay, Brazil removed the one thing blocking Venezuela's inclusion into the group. Bringing in Venezuela while Paraguay has been under suspension was a contentious move. If succession in Venezuela turns into a free for all and fails to meet minimum commitments for democracy, it could challenge the already weak credibility of MERCOSUR and prove a major set back for Brazilian foreign policy.

And that's the rub. No one knows. It's possible the Chavistas decide to rally behind a new figure. It's possible they implode and the opposition swoops in. It's possible Chavez returns and puts a plan in place for handing over power. As long as Venezuelan governance is based on presidential discretion instead of rules, the future will remain uncertain and disaster will lurk beyond every major change in leadership.

Ultimately, it might end up being Venezuela's regional ties that stabilize the situation. Countries like Cuba have a lot to lose from political turmoil in Caracas, and so have taken proactive steps to broker a smooth transition. Brazil, too, can be expected to do what it can to calm things down.

But whether or not Hugo Chavez recovers only affects these problems in terms of timing. It's doubtful Chavez will make himself any less than indispensable as long has he can rule and by the time he can't, the country will have already lost it's keystone.