Better the devil you know?

At the beginning of the week, the news from Havana was that Cuban surgeons had completely removed a lesion from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and that he was in good physical condition and in direct contact with his government in Caracas. Notwithstanding the upbeat nature of the official reports from Caracas, it is probably still too early to gauge how energetic Mr Chávez will be on his return to office.

This has not, however, prevented opponents of Mr Chávez, re-energised by the election of Henrique Capriles as the standard bearer of Democratic Unity in the presidential election scheduled for October 7, from fantasising about the Venezuelan president’s possible forced exit from the political stage.

Even though the National Electoral Council has not yet officially announced the election, the combination of Mr Capriles’ triumph in the opposition’s primary and Mr Chávez’s illness has given what is effectively the pre-election period an added piquancy. Indeed, the immediate post-operation period will be one of continued uncertainty and not a little tension, given the President’s central, authoritarian role in government. To attempt to predict what will unfold between now and October 7 would be foolish in the extreme, but there are a few conceivable scenarios that could play out.

Firstly, Mr Chávez makes a full recovery and is returned to power in October. Of course, he could lose to Mr Capriles, but this looks like a long shot at present.

Secondly, Mr Chávez is unable to contest the election and there is an unseemly scramble to identify a successor, since there is no heir apparent and no one in the President’s inner circle appears to have the charisma and authority to effect a seamless transition in time for the polls. And even if such a figure were to arise, it is dubious that chavismo in its current form could survive without its progenitor and protagonist.

This second scenario gives rise to two further possibilities: either Mr Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), under a new leader, wins or loses the presidential election, with the country plunged into even more uncertainty in both cases. If the PSUV were to lose, a worst case scenario could see its adherents unable to hand over power graciously, with the country plunged into civil strife and violence. And the position of the chavista military high command would also be open to question. Would the army confine itself to its traditional, institutional role of guarantor of the constitution? Or would it follow the Defence Minister General Henry Rangel’s November 2010 declaration, when he was Chief of the army’s Strategic Operational Command, that the army was “married” to President Chávez’s political project and that if the opposition won the 2012 elections, it would not accept such a result?

Thus, a situation of multiple variables and uncertainties appears to be unfolding and whilst the spectre of national instability must be profoundly worrisome to many in Venezuela, there are serious implications for regional stability and for Guyana and Caricom in particular.

Guyana’s most pressing concern vis-à-vis Vene-zuela is, of course, the border controversy. Mr Chávez has already been taken to task by elements of the opposition for appearing to be soft on Guyana and for allowing Guyana to hold on to and develop Essequibo. Should a new government take over in Caracas and decide to use Essequibo as a rallying point for the nation, Guyana would once again find itself in, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable position.

For the three Caricom members of ALBA (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines) and the other three lining up to join (Haiti, St Lucia and Suriname), and for the 12 Caricom beneficiaries of Petrocaribe (only Barbados, Montserrat and Trinidad and Tobago have not signed onto the preference system), the economic shock of having to do without Mr Chávez’s petro-generosity might be too much to bear, given the fragile state of most of the economies in question.

In many respects, the majority of Caricom’s leaders are probably hoping and praying that nothing prevents Mr Chávez from taking full control of the reins of government again. This is the problem with the new clientelism that has evolved in the region: dependency – ever the bane of a small state’s existence – has left our governments with little room to manoeuvre. Now, the default option with regard to Venezuela and Mr Chávez would appear to be ‘Better the devil you know.‘ Presumably, our Heads of Government are fully seized of the situation in Venezuela and will be discussing strategies and options when they meet in Paramaribo next week.