According to a report published by Spanish newspaper ABC on Monday and Tuesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may only have 9-12 months to live as a result of his decision to prioritize presidential duties over personal health. Chavez's prostate cancer was reportedly discovered in January of 2011, at which point his prognosis was five years. Since that initial diagnosis, Chavez has repeatedly postponed treatments or skipped them altogether in the interests of concealing his illness and protecting his political position.
The leaked report, which ABC says was given to the paper by "intelligence services" (much like a November leak to The Wall Street Journal), is dated Jan. 12 and reviews a medical examination Chavez underwent Dec. 30. According to the report, the South American president needs to undergo a painful, debilitating treatment that, while preventing him from working for more than a month, could extend his lifespan. If he defers the treatment, he will likely to die within the year. According to ABC, when presented with a similar conundrum in November, Chavez chose to stay in Caracas rather than travel to Russia for treatment — out of fear that the political situation in Venezuela was not secure. We have no way to be completely certain that the report accurately represents Chavez's medical condition, but the tenor of the report matches a series of accounts given to Stratfor and other open sources.
Competition within the Chavista inner circle dominated 2011, as each of Chavez's closest associates sought to take best advantage of the turmoil that ensued when Chavez's bout of illness became public in June. The upcoming October elections have added urgency to this struggle. There is no clear successor to Chavez among the Chavista elite. However, Chavez in recent weeks appointed Diosdado Cabello as first vice president of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party and later named him President of the National Assembly. Clearly, a single faction has taken the lead. Cabello represents the pragmatic, militaristic wing of the Chavista elite. However, although powerful, Cabello is not particularly popular, and he is not likely to be a suitable replacement for Chavez in October.
The most believable political alternative to Chavez may actually come from the Venezuelan opposition. After years of disunity and infighting, the opposition is presenting its most credible challenge to Chavez since he came to office in 1999. Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski appears most likely to secure the backing of the opposition parties in the Feb. 12 primaries. Capriles has positioned himself as a man of the people, claiming he is the natural heir to Chavismo, but with a pro-business twist.
The most important thing to remember amid all this uncertainty is that the underlying processes driving Venezuela are not as dependent on Chavez as they might appear. The kind of change that truly shifts the nature of a country comes slowly. The attributes of Chavez's regime that are so criticized by opponents — the networks of corruption, economic inefficiencies and low levels of international investment – are merely contemporary expressions of Venezuela's timeless patterns of patronage and influence.
Even if a prudent leader takes power in Chavez's wake, he will not likely make immediate changes to the system because the risk of destabilization is high. Capriles has made clear that he would make few major changes — even saying he would maintain the controversial oil shipments to Cuba.
Assuming Chavez is as ill as this week's reports suggest, the next six months will likely be tumultuous. Nonetheless, there remains a good deal of room for compromise among Venezuela's power players, and a power transition over the next year will not necessarily translate to a severe destabilization of the country.