Before rushing back to Cuba, Chávez anointed his vice president and foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. After hiding the gravity of his condition for two years, Chávez conceded that he might not recover fully after this latest surgery and implored Venezuelans to vote for Maduro in any election to choose his successor.
Critics have tried to belittle Maduro as a former bus driver. However, he has served in the National Assembly and, for the last six years, has run circles around the U.S. State Department as Chávez’s foreign minister. Chávez, his Cuban handlers, and others in his inner circle believe that Maduro stands the best chance of connecting with the country’s very poor majority in a snap election required to choose a successor. Described in the Western media as “affable,” Maduro is poised to be a front man for a dangerous regime.
A possible rival to Maduro is Diosdado Cabello, a former military man who is president of the National Assembly and vice president (under Chávez) of the ruling socialist party. According to well-placed witnesses who are cooperating with U.S. law enforcement, Cabello leads a powerful cadre of dozens of retired and active-duty military officers who are responsible for moving tons of cocaine through Venezuelan territory. These men — including former minister of defense General Henry Rangel Silva and army chief General Cliver Alcala — will never risk losing power and being held accountable for their crimes. It is not clear that Cabello and the narco-generals will defer to Maduro and the civilian leadership being promoted by the self-interested Castro regime.
Since Chávez’s terminal cancer was diagnosed by Cuban doctors 18 months ago, the Castro brothers have been grooming a successor who will continue to provide the $3.5 billion in oil subsidies each year to the desperate Cuban economy. Their problem is that Cabello is well aware that Fidel Castro counseled his demotion to state politics in 2004, due in part to Cabello having amassed too much wealth and power of his own. Cabello’s return to the center of power was engineered in January by narco-generals as their life insurance policy, after Chávez’s faltering health threatened the continuity of the regime.
It is not clear that Cabello and the narco-generals will defer to Maduro and the civilian leadership being promoted by the self-interested Castro regime.The harsh reality is that if Maduro and Cabello close ranks, one-party rule could survive for decades in Venezuela. Their biggest domestic challenges would be the dysfunctional economy and public security crisis caused by a dozen years of autocracy, corruption, and incompetence. If a Chavista government can break the fall of the economy — by quietly resuscitating the private sector and restoring a professional police force and independent criminal courts — it could stabilize the country.
Unfortunately, the democratic opposition has few cards to play, having spent the last 18 months competing in rigged elections, with no chance of winning. If snap elections are called upon Chávez’s death, even a united opposition cannot overcome Venezuela’s brand of “casino” elections in which the house always wins. And, while Maduro’s envoys are reaching out to Washington, the opposition has no presence or profile outside Venezuela.
The Achilles’ heel of such a Chavista successor regime will be the criminality of Cabello and the military leadership. However, that only matters if U.S. law enforcement agencies and prosecutors finally indict these military kingpins for drug smuggling or narco-terrorism. That’s where the State Department’s careless rush to normalize bilateral relations could have a pernicious effect.
According to my Venezuelan sources, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Maduro spoke earlier this month to discuss the exchange of ambassadors for the first time since 2008. The Chavistas believe that step would be the final piece to consolidating a successor regime. Just this past Monday, Jacobson’s deputy, Kevin Whitaker, met discreetly in Washington with a member of Chávez’s council of state, Ambassador Roy Chaderton, to plot next steps.
An unconditional rapprochement may undercut efforts to indict senior officials for their drug crimes. Perhaps leaders in the U.S. Congress will insist that we not recognize Chávez’s successor until he promises to adopt democratic reforms and to cooperate with U.S. anti-drug investigations. If they do not act soon, career diplomats may get their wish of normalizing relations with Caracas, even if it confers legitimacy on a dangerous, undemocratic regime in Venezuela.
Roger Noriega was assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. He is currently a visiting fellow at the . His firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents U.S. and foreign clients.