After Chávez, the Narcostate

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has tried for 10 months to conceal the fact that he is losing his bout with cancer, determined to appear in command of his revolutionary regime and the nation's future. This past Holy Week, however, television cameras captured him pleading for his life before a crucifix in his hometown church, his mother looking on without the slightest glint of hope on her face. Chávez's raw emotion startled his inner circle and led some to question his mental health. As a result, according to my sources inside the presidential palace, Minister of Defense Gen. Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chávez's deteriorating condition causes any hint of instability.

Pretty dramatic stuff. So why isn't anyone outside Venezuela paying attention? Some cynics in that country still believe Chávez is hyping his illness for political advantage, while his most fervent followers expect him to make a miraculous recovery. The democratic opposition is cautiously preparing for a competitive presidential election set for Oct. 7 -- against Chávez or a substitute. And policymakers in Washington and most regional capitals are slumbering on the sidelines.
In my estimation, the approaching death of the Venezuelan caudillo could put the country on the path toward a political and social meltdown. The military cadre installed by Chávez in January already is behaving like a de facto regime determined to hold onto power at all costs. And Havana, Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing are moving to protect their interests. If U.S. President Barack Obama were to show some energetic engagement as Chávez fades, he could begin to put the brakes on Venezuela's slide, reverse Chávismo's destructive agenda, and reclaim a role for the United States in its own neighborhood. But if he fails to act, there will be hell to pay.

(…)Iran is more dependent than ever on its banks and other ventures in Venezuela as a means to launder billions in funds to evade tightening international financial sanctions. Companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force, and illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs have invested millions in infrastructure in shadowy facilities throughout Venezuela. Tehran will struggle to keep its beachhead near U.S. soil, which is vital to its survival strategy in the critical months ahead.

(…)U.S. intelligence agencies have been virtually blind to the Iranian presence in Venezuela. If they were instructed to kick over the rocks to see what is crawling underneath, I am convinced that they would discover a grave and growing threat against the security of the United States and its allies in the region. Such evidence will help motivate Venezuela's neighbors to take a stand against an even more unaccountable regime taking shape in Caracas.

Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and assistant secretary of state from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on April 11th, 2012.

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