When Hugo Chavez left this world, he took the linchpin holding together the Venezuelan political system-and the coalition of leftist Latin American States with him.
El Comandante was politically indispensable. He was the tie that bound together the military and civilian halves of the ruling coalition and served as the focal point for popular support.
All this was great for Chavez’s job security, but after his death it means instability for the country.
According the the Venezuelan constitution, elections are to be held within 30 days. The likely match up would pit Chavez’s handpicked successor Nicolas Maduro against the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, who Chavez recently defeated for the presidency. If the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) does in fact remain united, Maduro stands a good chance of riding another populist wave to victory.
The fly in the ointment could be Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and fellow PSUV leader. Cabello represents the military wing of the party and has been acting president in Chavez’s absence. If he decides to challenge Maduro, it could split the party in two and open up the way for Capriles.
Whoever comes out on top in Venezuela will have plenty to do. The economy remains weak despite the government’s most recent efforts. Oil output remains low due to government mismanagement. There are a whole host of other issues as well.
Chavez’s death will be felt not just in Venezuela, but across the entire region. Chavez led a coalition of leftist governments, making ample use of Venezuela’s oil revenues to support his Bolivarian Revolution. But no other leftist has either the political capital or the financial resources to pick up where Chavez has left off.
Argentina’s Kirchner is busy starting hyper-inflation. The Cubans are busy with internal reform and aren't likely to have the resources to lead in any event. That leaves Ecuador’s newly reelected Correa as a potential regional successor. He has much of Chavez’s charisma and enough oil funds to make a bid for regional leadership.
If a strong leftist leader isn't able to replace Chavez, states in the region may shift towards either Brazil or the U.S.’s sphere of influence.
Whatever happens next, it won't be pretty. Venezuela’s institutions weren't meant to work without Chavez. Regardless of the end result, millions in Venezuela and hundreds of millions across Latin America will feel the effects of this one man’s death for some time to come.