“Free, free, totally free,” Hugo Chavez bellowed at reporters during a July 9 press conference in Caracas, when asked about the treatment he’d been undergoing in Cuba for the cancer he was diagnozed with one year earlier.  That claim of a miraculous cure sustained him throughout the summer, as he fought off a concerted opposition attempt to defeat his bid for a fourth presidential term in the October election.

In the end, Chavez pulled off a victory with 55 percent of the vote–though, as I wrote at the time, had the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, “been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely.” But Venezuela under Chavez is much closer to a dictatorship, which means that state-run media outlets are closed to opposition voices, Chavista thugs roam the streets beating up opposition activists, and lying to the voters–as Chavez has done over his cancer–is perfectly acceptable in the name of the revolution.

Yesterday, the lie was laid bare for all to see. Chavez announced that he was returning to Cuba for further medical treatment, and that he was designating his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. In naming Maduro, Chavez was faithfully following the playbook of his hero, the ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who in 2006 preemptively anointed his brother, Raul, as the island’s next leader.

However much Chavez wants Venezuelans to believe that a smooth transition is possible, the reality is that the Caracas regime has been plunged into a grave political crisis. The question Venezuela observers have been asking ever since learning of Chavez’s cancer–Can the system of Chavismo survive the death of its principal architect?–is now more poignant than ever.

Maduro is the archetypal Chavista, a former bus driver and labor union activist with an ideologically rigid worldview. As the leading opposition figure Diego Arria pointed out on his twitter feed, Maduro’s potential succession will be warmly welcomed by the Castro brothers, who regard him as critical to maintaining the Cuban-Venezuelan alliance. Rewarded by Chavez with the post of foreign minister in 2006, Maduro has energetically pushed Venezuela’s participation in the loose global alliance of rogue states stretching from Belarus to Iran.

Back in August, he unveiled the frankly barmy idea of a troika, composed of Venezuela, Egypt and Iran, to intervene in the Syrian civil war. This was, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt to allow the Assad regime, which has benefited from heavily subsidized gas exports from Venezuela, to carry on with its slaughter. “Before everything else,” Maduro told reporters during a stop in Tehran, “we call on the major powers to stop interfering in Syria’s internal affairs and allow the Syrian people to live in calm, peace, and independence.”

A Maduro presidency might also become transformed into something of a dynasty. His wife, Cilia Flores, is Venezuela’s prosecutor-general, who gained her reputation when she secured Chavez’s release from prison two years after he was incarcerated for a failed coup attempt in 1992. When the executive and judiciary share a bedroom, it’s a sure sign, firstly, that the constitutional separation of powers no longer exists, and secondly, that family members and other intimates should move to the front of the line when ministerial positions are doled out.

Still, Maduro is not a shoo-in–at least, not yet. In one of the more perceptive analyses that followed Chavez’s latest announcement, Sean Burgess argued:

Although Chavez is explicitly naming Maduro…as his successor and protector of the revolution, there is no wider consensus or actual agreement that the vice-president should assume the reins of power. In particular, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello harbours his own presidential ambitions.

Cabello is a prominent businessman with strong ties to the Venezuelan military. As the dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal wrote in March, Cabello is “not well-liked,” but a significant number of Chavez loyalists view him as a safe pair of hands who can keep the military onside.

Looking back on Chavez’s 14 years in power, it would be foolish indeed to believe that these internal conflicts, whether between the regime and the opposition, or within the murky world of Chavismo itself, can be resolved without violence and bloodshed. Having actively sought to enable Assad’s killing spree, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to posit that Maduro, or, for that matter, Cabello, would resort to a Syrian-style “solution” in the event of a mass rejection of Chavez’s succession plan.

For that reason, the United States now needs to actively engage with Venezuela. For too long, the Obama administration has treated Chavez like a harmless, if irritating, eccentric, rather than a potential security threat. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to turn an enemy into a friend, by building on the opposition’s strong showing last October. Washington’s policy should therefore emphasize two points: one, that it will not recognize the legitimacy of any regime that comes to power without a fair election; two, that should Chavismo elect to survive the Chavez era by any means necessary, its leaders will find themselves on the end of the kinds of punishing sanctions already applied to Syria and Iran. It may be too late for Chavez to answer for his crimes in a court of law, but Maduro, Cabello and any other pretenders to the Chavista throne should gain no comfort from that.

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