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Venezuelan scenarios

Many of us who thought that Chávez was guaranteed to win the elections in October must now rethink our forecasts

Hugo Chávez's admission that he will have to "rethink his agenda" after having been diagnosed with a new "lesion" which might be cancerous, poses doubts about the future of his Marxist-Leninist model, in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. Many of us who thought that Chávez would win the elections in October - thanks to an indiscriminate use of state funds to buy votes, a quasi-monopoly of the media, and the intimidation of contrary voters - must now rethink our forecasts. Chávez may still win, but it isn't such a sure thing. Suddenly Chávez seems vulnerable. Venezuelan political analysts are no longer discussing whether he will be in power "beyond 2019" - as the president himself had claimed as recently as February 18 - but whether he will still be president at year's end. There are three major scenarios of what may happen in Venezuela in the months to come.

Scenario 1. Nothing changes. Chávez slows down, but remains in the running for the presidential elections in October.

Chávez may win if, apart from the above-mentioned media and intimidation factors, his government benefits from soaring oil prices, in the case of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations. This would give him even more resources to buy votes.

Besides, Chávez may benefit from a "pity effect" that would cause many Venezuelans to sympathize with him due to his disease and vote for him, though many may resent the fact that he and his ministers had lied in sharply denying the rumors about his condition, which turned out to be true.

Scenario 2. Chávez designates a successor. His health deteriorates, and he names a substitute to run in the October elections, taking a leaf out of Fidel Castro's playbook from 2006.

Cuba, whose economy depends on petrodollars from Chávez, and is the country most interested in maintaining the status quo in Venezuela, would be the first to recommend to Chávez a Castro-like succession that would keep the government in place, with Chávez as Father of the Revolution, but behind the scenes.

But without the Chávez media presence, the successor might lose the elections in October. The Venezuelan government is notoriously inept and corrupt, and depends almost entirely on the personal popularity of Chávez among certain sectors of the population. It also faces adverse electoral trends that show a constant rise in opposition votes: the anti-Chávez candidates obtained 52 percent of the vote in the 2010 legislative elections, and unexpectedly received three million votes in last month's primaries.

Scenario 3. A military intervention, or "the Egyptian scenario." Chávez is incapacitated or dies in the next few months, and the top echelons of the Venezuelan army take power with the excuse of preventing chaos.

The generals of Chávez - some of whom, such as the defense minister, Henry Rangel Silva, have been accused by the United States of involvement in drug trafficking, while others fear corruption investigations if the opposition comes to power - are the people with most to lose should the Chávez regime collapse.

"In order not to lose their hold on power, the officers, in cooperation with the radical adherents of Chávez, might seek a military solution to suspend the elections, pointing to a supposed danger of civil war," says the political consultant and opinion pollster Alfredo Keller in Caracas. "If Chávez disappears, an Egyptian scenario is very possible."

The last thing Latin America needs, after the erosion of democratic liberties in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries, is a return of the military juntas. The two first scenarios - whoever comes out the winner - are preferable to the third.

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