To be sure, Venezuela had a serious problem with violent crime before Chávez assumed the presidency. But its national murder rate has more than tripled since he took office in 1999, according to the OVV. Telegraph correspondent Nick Allen notes that Venezuela is now experiencing more murders than the United States and the European Union combined. To offer some perspective: The total population of the U.S. and the 27 EU member states (815 million) is roughly 28 times larger than that of Venezuela (29 million). As Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro explains, “Venezuela’s murder rate is just unheard of among middle-income countries, to say nothing of oil-rich states on the receiving end of massive new petrodollar flows.”
The violence has many causes, including endemic corruption and Venezuela’s increasingly important role in the global cocaine trade. Governed by a regime that has supported narco-terrorists belonging to the Colombian FARC and allowed senior officials to become veritable kingpins, the country is awash in drugs, gangs, and guns. Between 2007 and 2011, Venezuela was the 15th largest arms importer in the world, importing 555 percent more arms than it did over the previous five-year period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Its Russian-financed weapons buildup has allowed Chávez to equip tens of thousands of pro-government paramilitary fighters with AK-47 assault rifles. These paramilitaries make up the so-called Bolivarian militia, which is tasked with defending the Chávez revolution and intimidating its opponents.
As you might imagine, there have been tensions between the militia and the official Venezuelan armed forces. Chávez’s death would increase these tensions. It would also lead to greater unrest over the “Cubanization” of so many Venezuelan institutions. (In early 2010, several former Chávez loyalists published a letter complaining that institutions such as the military had been “distorted by the incursion of outside elements,” i.e., Cubans.) The disputes over Cubanization could get especially fierce if Castro acolyte Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s designated successor, took power and governed as “a puppet of Havana” (to quote a recent prediction from former Venezuelan oil official Gustavo Coronel).
Maduro currently serves as both vice president and foreign minister. Neither he nor Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, has anything close to the charisma, political talents, or cult-like following of Hugo Chávez. Yet both seem determined to maintain the key elements of his revolution, and both showed a complete disregard for the Venezuelan constitution in their statements about postponing the date of Chávez’s inauguration (which was originally scheduled for Thursday, January 10). Whether Maduro and Cabello will eventually find themselves — and their respective pro-Chávez factions — locked in a power struggle remains to be seen.
What about relations between Caracas and Washington? Recent news reports have indicated that U.S. and Venezuelan officials are working to secure a bilateral rapprochement, including a restoration of ambassadors. But it is hard to see how Washington could enjoy any type of “normal” relationship with a regime that shelters drug kingpins, brutalizes political opponents, confiscates private property, stockpiles Russian weaponry, threatens its neighbors, and helps Iran evade global sanctions.
The hope of Venezuelan democrats is that Chávez’s death would be followed by a national election in which opposition leader Henrique Capriles emerged victorious. Despite losing to Chávez by 11 percentage points in the country’s October 2012 presidential election, Capriles is still broadly popular, and on December 16 he won election to another term as governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most-populous state.
For now, everything in Venezuela is highly uncertain and highly volatile. That’s just one more unfortunate consequence of Chávez’s autocratic revolution — a revolution that has turned an oil-rich nation into a land of crime, cronyism, and chaos.
(You can read this article in Spanish here.)