Having spent the last few months in a Berniesque state, Hugo Chavez was finally declared dead today. Thus the question: what will is next for Venezuela?
First, similar to almost every dead autocrat, Chavez did not leave strong institutions, or anyone politically strong enough, for that matter, to maintain his legacy. The reason is simple: strong institutions or popular politician/leaders could become rival bases of power that threaten his power and influence. As a result, Chavez relied on his cult of personality to maintain his power, while at the same time, providing ample bread and circuses through pillaging PDVSA, Venezuela's national oil company, and terrible economic policies (plus generous loans from China).
True, Chavez did install a heir, Nicolas Maduro, to maintain the flame of the Chavismo revolution. Still, it is very doubtful that this former bus driver, while still leading in a recent survey, can maintain his popularity or his political alliance among Chavez's lieutenants: Diosdado Cabello, the leader of Venezuelan military, Jorge Giordani, the Minister of Economy and Finance, and Rafael Ramirez, who controlled Venezuelan energy sector and thus the PDVSA.
The piper will have to be paid. With the economic crisis looming on the horizon, the current alliance of Chavez's lieutenants might be unraveling. Up to now, Chavez's charisma was the only thing that prevented the poor from rebelling. While the government made bad economic policies, for the people, what was really important was that Chavez, who they believed cared for them, was in power. As the Economist stated:
Mr Chávez’s supreme political achievement was that many ordinary Venezuelans credited him with the handouts and did not blame him for the blemishes. They saw him as one of them, as being on their side. His supporters, especially women, would say: “This man was sent by God to help the poor”. He had llanero wit and charm, and an instinctive sense of political opportunity. He deployed these talents each Sunday on “Aló Presidente”, his interminable talk show. He had the skills of a televangelist, as Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera, two Venezuelan writers, put it in a revealing biography.It is very doubtful whether Maduro can maintain this illusion. He might be Chavez's successor, but he is no Chavez. Once Maduro grows unpopular, the alliance will unraveling. His allies will try to scapegoat him, feeding him to the masses while attempting to gain the throne for themselves.
Cuba might try to spend considerable capital to keep Maduro in power. The question, however, is whether Cuba will maintain the political will to do so. Like it or not, Cuba has an interest to ensure that Venezuela is led by anyone friendly enough to Cuba. It is simply stupid to keep trying to prop up a very unpopular leader, risking the ire of Maduro's eventual successor. It is a much better idea to cut loose the ties and cultivate the next potential leader.
Therefore, the irony: the perilous economic conditions of Venezuela could actually keep Maduro in power, as none of his ally will attempt to seize power, for now, because they know that whomever is in power will be saddled with the blame should the economy finally collapse.
Once the economy collapses, however, it is highly possible that Cabello, with strong support in the Venezuelan civil service and contacts in the military, could end up taking the reins.
What about the opposition? It is still possible for the opposition to rise up to power. They can't do it alone, though. Chavez's lieutenants are far too entrenched in power now, and with Chavez gone and given their precarious positions, expect more crackdowns and vilification of the opposition. Already, Maduro declared that Chavez's cancer was a part of conspiracy against Chavez by both the opposition and the United States.
It is possible that the rest of Chavez's lieutenants or even Cabello himself, who was reportedly "the man most hated and vilified by the opposition and not much loved by Chavistas," could make a Faustian bargain with the opposition to create a national unity government to keep other Chavezites out of power. If that's the case, then Venezuela might follow the Spanish democratization model.
Otherwise, expect to see either a brutal military dictatorship or a civil war. Both options are not appealing, but with decades of damage under Chavez, the future does not look bright for Venezuela.