Hugo Chavez missed the first day of the three-day round of celebrations for his 2002 coup, after begging God for life last week. He knows he’s not getting better.
Upon his return to Caracas, he warned anyone opposing him that “this is not an unarmed revolution“, as a threat to anyone who may want to destabilize Venezuela (video in Spanish),
No one knows for sure what will happen after his demise. Roger Noriega makes an educated guess, After Chávez, the Narcostate, taking into consideration the many international players: Cuba, China, Russia and Iran, and the drugs
Cuba’s Fidel and Raúl Castro are desperate to preserve the life-blood of Venezuelan oil that sustains their bankrupt regime. According to a source who was briefed on conversations in Cuba, Raúl has counseled Chávez to prepare to pass power to a “revolutionary junta”; Venezuelans who are suspicious of the Castros expect them to pack the junta with men loyal to Havana. Cabello does not trust the Castros, but with thousands of Cuban intelligence officers and triggermen on the ground in Venezuela, the Castro brothers are a force to be reckoned with.
The Chinese have provided more than $20 billion in quickie loans to Chávez in the last 18 months, which are to be repaid by oil at well below the market price. Most of these funds were paid into Chávez’s slush funds before the Chinese knew of his terminal condition. Another $4 billion is being negotiated now, but my sources in the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry say the Chinese are demanding new guarantees. Beijing also is angling to ensure that any post-Chávez government will honor its sweetheart deals. However, these predatory contracts are being scrutinized by leading opposition members of the National Assembly.
Iran is more dependent than ever on its banks and other ventures in Venezuela as a means to launder billions in funds to evade tightening international financial sanctions. Companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force, and illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs have investedmillions in infrastructure in shadowy facilities throughout Venezuela. Tehran will struggle to keep its beachhead near U.S. soil, which is vital to its survival strategy in the critical months ahead.
Russia is considering making $1-2 billion in payments in the weeks ahead to lock in natural gas and oil deals signed with Chávez. Some in Moscow, however, are weary of the Venezuelan shakedown, particularly because they know that Chávez’s days are numbered. Russian firms are deciding now whether to double down on the Chávez regime, which has been a reliable customer of more than $13 billion in Russian arms, or wait to see if a successor government will honor its agreements in the oil and gas sector.
The Soviet-style succession that corrupt Chavistas and their Cuban handlers are trying to impose on the Venezuelan people is anything but a done deal. There is room and time for friends of democracy to play a constructive role.
Cabello and company, my sources tell me, are far more likely to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression if they can count on support from Moscow and Beijing. The Chavistas intend to promise continued cheap oil and sweetheart contracts to leverage this support. Discreet U.S. diplomacy — working in concert with like-minded allies — can help scuttle these plans. The Chinese and Russians may not be eager to defend yet another violent pariah regime, and Washington should rally Latin American leaders to draw the line against a Syria scenario in the Western Hemisphere.
At the heart of the Chavista strategy is a narco-state, led by men with well-documented ties to narco-trafficking. The White House should instruct U.S. law enforcement agencies to smash the foundations of this regime. One Venezuelan general or corrupt judge in a witness box in a U.S. federal courthouse will strike the regime at the very top and destroy any illusion of legitimacy or survivability.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been virtually blind to the Iranian presence in Venezuela. If they were instructed to kick over the rocks to see what is crawling underneath, I am convinced that they would discover a grave and growing threat against the security of the United States and its allies in the region. Such evidence will help motivate Venezuela’s neighbors to take a stand against an even more unaccountable regime taking shape in Caracas.
Venezuela’s military is not a monolith, and Chávez has undermined his own succession strategy by giving the narco-generals such visible and operational roles. The fact that the narco-generals will be more willing to resort to unconstitutional measures and repression to keep power and carry the “narco” label sets them apart from the rank-and-file soldiers and institutionalist generals. The United States military still carries a lot of weight with these men. A simple admonition to respect their constitution and serve their people may split the bulk of the force away from the narcos and deny them the means to impose their will. (Institutionalist generals may react in a similar way to news that Iran is conducting secret operations on Venezuelan territory that are both unconstitutional and a dangerous provocation.)
It’ll happen, and not too far in the future.