October 3, 2011
News over the summer that Venezuelan President-for-Life Hugo Chavez had been treated in Cuba for cancer left people wondering whether this signifies the end of his despotic regime. As a highly polarizing leader who delights in thumbing his nose at the "Yankee imperialists" every chance he gets, it is inevitable that many people will be cheered as his health declines. But he is a human being, and therefore at least deserves some sympathy, even if his recovery would probably result in more hardships and oppression for the people of Venezuela. It's a tricky moral issue.
Last Thursday, he tried to dispel fears that his days are numbered by throwing a softball in the presence of reporters. (The Nuevo Herald of Miami published a story that he had been hospitalized due to complications.) Ever since surgeons removed a cancerous tumor from his "pelvic region" in June, Chavez has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments in Cuba, most recently last week. His bald head is a jarring contrast to the zestful, ebullient style he has been known for, but he says he is lifting weights and expects a full recovery. He plans to run for re-election next year. See CNN.com and/or Washington Post
But the long term is another question. Even if he does live another ten years, he will be seen as a lame duck, unable to instill as much fear in his opponents as he used to. Even his supporters will be less likely to respond enthusiastically whenever he needs them in a showdown with opponents, and there is a big risk that his key lieutenants will start to jockey for position in a post-Chavez Venezuela. All authoritarian systems are vulnerable to changes in leadership, and the more iron-fisted is the dictator, the more brittle is the regime.
Nevertheless, any hope or expectation that Chavez will depart this earthly existence any time soon must be weighed against the similar hopes of exiled Cubans that Fidel Castro would die after reports of his illness in August 2006. Fidel eventually recovered, more or less, and even though his "younger" brother Raul now runs the country, Fidel remains as a potent symbol of the Cuban Revolution.
Venezuela's economy is in very bad shape, with an inflation rate of 27% last year, and accelerating. Part of the problem, ironically, is that they depend on oil exports to the United States, and demand has gone down because of the poor economic conditions in North America. But as The Economist reports, the main problem is the mismanagement by Chavez and his underlings, trying to force businesses to abide by price controls and a wide array of regulatory decrees, often with a political motivation. It can't go on like that much longer, one would think, but then the same thing could be said of other "basket case" centrally-planned economies such as North Korea or Zimbabwe.