Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela's Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death.
The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez's cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as "absurd."
Maduro, nonetheless, is determined to implicate the United States in a grand conspiracy to kill Chavez. Shortly before the announcement of Chavez's death, two U.S. Air Force attaches in Caracas, Col. David Delmonaco and his assistant Devlin Costal, were expelled from the country. Explaining the decision, Maduro said that "scientific proof" would eventually emerge to confirm that Chavez was poisoned.
The parallels here with the "Doctors' Plot" that surfaced in Stalin's final months are all too clear. Ironically, though, while it took Stalin's death for the plot accusations to be exposed as a fabrication, in Venezuela the reverse is true. Chavez's death is an opportunity for his followers to stir up a Doctors' Plot of their very own–and given the regime's embrace of anti-Semitism along with anti-Americanism, these fantasies could wind up in some very dark places indeed.
What, though, of the immediate future? According to the Venezuelan constitution, elections have to be held within 30 days of the death of the incumbent president. However, in the more than three months that Chavez has been off the scene, the Chavistas have treated constitutional requirements with absolute contempt.
When Chavez failed to make his scheduled inauguration on January 15–an obvious sign of incapacitation and therefore a trigger for new elections–the Chavista Supreme Court, packed with judges personally appointed by the president, simply ruled that his absence was temporary and that new elections were not necessary. Meanwhile, Maduro went to extravagant lengths to maintain the fiction of a healthy, functioning Chavez recuperating behind close doors. As recently as two weeks ago, he claimed that he and his fellow cabinet ministers had held a five-hour meeting with Chavez. With a straight face, Maduro quoted Chavez lecturing those assembled, "…about the speculative attack on our currency and product hoarding, and said that we have to increase actions to fight the economic war being waged by the bourgeois."
To a great extent, this strategy worked. Only five days ago, Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling firm, reported that 56.7 percent of Venezuelans believed that Chavez would recover and return to politics. The tight control the regime exercises over the state media, its continued marginalization of independent voices like the Globovision television station, and, most importantly, its influence over the country's National Election Commission–a body dubbed by the influential Venezuelan opposition politician Diego Arria as the "Ministry of Electing Mr. Chavez"–mean that in the event that elections are called, the opposition will find itself in a very difficult position.
An opposition candidate–currently, Henrique Capriles, who challenged Chavez last October, is regarded as Maduro's likely opponent–will be able to articulate a cogent message. Chavez has dragged Venezuela's economy into the gutter. Food shortages and the recent devaluation of the Bolivar against the U.S. dollar by 46.5 percent are damaging the very constituency which the Chavistas claim to represent. The country has become a virtual colony of Cuba, which benefits hugely from Venezuela's heavily subsidized oil supplies. Finally, during the Chavez era, relations with the world's democracies have suffered as a result of the Comandante's embrace of tyrants like Fidel Castro, the Iranian mullahs and the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko–relationships which have brought no material consequences other than to rob the Venezuelan people of precious oil revenues.
The Chavistas, now at their most vengeful and paranoid, will do their utmost to ensure that no one hears these basic truths. As a result, any election will more closely resemble polling day in Iran or Zimbabwe than the United States or Europe. The question, then, for the Venezuelan opposition, as it battles against accusations of plots and conspiracies, is whether to focus on elections in a system where the odds are stacked in favor of the regime, or whether to develop a mass protest movement alongside. Both these options are going to require huge investments of time, courage and willingness to continue in spite of defeats. After all, it took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin's death. One shudders at the thought that Chavismo will last as long.