The announcement that Venezuela’s president is suffering from cancer raises the question of what lies ahead for the country, which under Chavez's leadership has been increasingly beset by organized crime.
President Hugo Chavez's sudden return to his country after several weeks in Cuba has raised the spirits of his supporters. But with the news that the leader is seriously ill, even his most devoted fans are looking forwards to what could happen with Chavez off the political scene, which suddenly seems a real possibility.
Crime under Chavez has grown exponentially, with Venezuela now the principal transit nation for Colombian cocaine heading for Europe. The official murder rate stands at 47 per 100,000 people, making Venezuela one of the most dangerous places in the world, well above its war-wracked neighbor Colombia. Kidnapping has soared, with some estimating that abductions rose 60 percent in 2010, up to a total of 1,179 last year.
These high rates of violence are linked to the growth of organized crime, which is firmly rooted in the country's institutions.
A dramatic illustration of the level of this penetration of organized crime was given by the recent disturbances in the Rodeo II prison, close to Caracas. Heavily armed prisoners have been holding off the security forces since June 18, under the command of criminal bosses who reportedly control everything that goes on inside the prison. Two of the institution's governors have been arrested on suspicion of allowing the trafficking of arms into the institution.
The police fare little better than the penal system. In 2009, the government itself said that the police were behind some 20 percent of all crime in Venezuela, including murder and kidnapping.
The military has long faced charges that many of its elements are connected to organized criminal groups, and even run drug trafficking operations themselves. Drug trafficker Walid Makled, recently extradited to Venezuela by Colombia, claims to have paid off members of the Venezuelan Congress, high ranking military commanders, and to have given money to Chavez’s party. He even claimed that government forces had guarded drug facilities for him.
The chance of any major changes in the near future are small. No figure from the Chavez-dominated ruling PSUV party stands out as having the backing, or independence, to take over from the charismatic leader. Vice President Elias Jaua did not take over in his absence, as the constitution sets out. Chavez has not groomed anyone for the succession, though one possible contender could be his brother Adan Chavez, who governs the state of Barinas. Rule by this second Chavez is unlikely to herald a move towards strengthening the rule of law; in the midst of concerns about the president’s health, Adan told supporters that they should not rule out armed struggle as a means to retain power. Meanwhile the rather weak opposition has not produced any single candidate who stands out as a powerful successor. A report by the Associated Press says that the opposition is only held together by animosity towards Chavez, and that his removal could cause its fragile coalition to fragment, as its different elements could be encouraged to strike out on their own.
It’s unclear how much even the most reform-minded successor could change things. The rot in Venezuela's institutions goes deep, and much corruption and abuse existed before Chavez even came to power. As for the economy, and the poverty rates that also contribute to the power of organized criminal groups, there are deeper structural issues that will prevent any swift turnaround. As a recent Reuters report pointed out, the predominance of oil in Venezuela encourages state control of the economy, and means that governments with poor economic policies can be propped up by high oil prices.
However, it is clear that there are many Venezuelans who want change. A poll by Datanalisis, carried out in May 2011, found that Chavez’s popularity had fallen to 47 percent, down from 71 percent in 2006. The head of the polling firm said that this drop was due to the president’s “inability to resolve the everyday problems of Venezuelans,” such as inflation, unemployment, and insecurity. The last of these may turn out to be a crucial factor in draining support away from the Bolivarian revolution, whether or not the president makes a full recovery from his illness.