As the first images of Hugo Chavez emerge after a two-month media blackout, the issue of post-Chavez Venezuela takes center stage once again.
The bottom line is that without its chief protagonist, Chavismo will ultimately wither away over time. However, several factors will determine the pace of de-Chavezation. Furthermore, a certain legacy will endure, specifically social sector programs. Although they may be amended, their continuity will largely prevail. During the 2012 presidential election, even opposition candidate Henrique Capriles acknowledged this.
Like other regional democracies such as Brazil, Venezuela can develop a responsible social sector within the context of an open society without political repression, intimidation and polarization. De-politicizing the use of petrodollars through greater accountability and transparency can guarantee more broad-based benefits across the socio-economic spectrum.
Should Chavista forces win an eventual post-Chavez snap-election the potential for a longer generational transformation increases. An initial show of unity would prevail, particularly during any mourning period. Furthermore, attempts would be made to implement more radical measures. However, existing factionalism would eventually manifest itself in varying forms. In the absence of its unifying figure, Chavismo will unravel over time.
The ideology based on the cult of personality of a single individual has largely run its course. It is veering toward bankruptcy, both ideologically and economically. Much is now based on traditional raw power and political patronage. It is struggling to maintain its largesse to supporters at home and throughout Latin America. In the long-term, Chavismo is simply unsustainable. It not only bites the hand that feeds Venezuela but devours it completely.
A victory by the opposition in a post-Chavez snap election could jump-start transformation. A new foreign policy reflecting Venezuela's national interests would take priority, not the ideological convictions of one person. Many of Chavez's dependents throughout Latin America would experience a rude awakening.
However, on the domestic front, a long and arduous road would mark change. It will not occur overnight. Barring a Chavista coup or refusal to renounce power, political opening would ensue. Cessation of human rights abuses, curtailing intimidation and repression, and restoring complete press freedoms would trigger further change.
However, just as Chavistas are prone to factionalism, the opposition is not immune. Over the past year, Henrique Capriles has led unprecedented opposition unity. It remains indispensable to de-Chavezation and accelerating its waning.
The greatest resistance would be posed by institutionalized Chavismo dominating the principal instruments of state power. Attempting an all-out purge through an Iraqi-style de-Baathification process could risk triggering a radical reaction and further destabilizing a fragile environment. Overall, a more balanced but firm approach is required according to institution.
At PDVSA, Venezuela's state oil company, swift change is required due to severe incompetence and mismanagement. PDVSA remains Venezuela's backbone. Productivity and efficiency must be restored through qualified apolitical technocrats. A results-oriented top-down approach must be instilled. Economic reality and national survival demand it.
Venezuela's military enjoys privileged status with considerable benefits. A politically neutral figure who commands respect across the military spectrum is required as defense minister. Over time, reform is needed to restore greater accountability to civilian leaders. In particular, gradual transformation of the officer corps will be required. They are stacked with die-hard Chavista loyalists.
Certain institutions will require enlargement and the appointment of new figures to implement change. The Chavista-dominated judiciary will certainly attempt to hamper de-Chavezation through legal stonewalling. Altering the composition of courts and increasing the number of qualified apolitical judicial appointees would guarantee greater objectivity in the legal process.
Furthermore, inserting non-Chavista officials in state election authorities will secure a more level playing field in the electoral process. Also, appointing new heads to state media and removing constraints on private media would also accelerate the process of change.
National reconciliation will require an inclusive, give-and-take approach of inducing many through incentives. Retribution must be avoided except for the most serious offenders. Overall, generational transformation will eventually prevail but certain Chavista elements will take longer to wither away.
Marco Vicenzino is a contributor to FreeVenezuela.org.