Policymakers Planning For A Venezuela After Chavez

Venezuelan officials say their president Hugo Chavez remains in a "delicate" condition in a Havana hospital following his fourth cancer surgery. If Chavez cannot be sworn in to a new presidential term on Jan. 10, a process of selecting a new president will begin. How well prepared is the U.S. government is for a post-Chavez Venezuela?

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Hugo Chavez has dominated Venezuela for so long, it's hard to imagine what the country would be like without him in charge. Opposition leaders are hoping for a new, more democratic system. But powerful factions in Venezuela want things to stay just as they are. Because the country is a key player in the region, NPR's Tom Gjelten says the U.S. is now making its own plans for life after Chavez.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: There's one new sign of Hugo Chavez's weakness. Markets are guessing he will not return to power. The last few days have seen a rally in Venezuelan bonds. Some investors figure the Venezuelan economy would improve if Chavez were out of the picture. Whether that's a good bet is another matter. Risa Grais-Targow of the Eurasia Group Consultancy, says she's telling her clients not to get too excited about putting their money into Venezuela right now.

RISA GRAIS-TARGOW: Markets are consistently overly optimistic about a scenario without Chavez. I think investors tend to really under appreciate the risks involved with a transition scenario, particularly given the country's deep political polarization and also the dire shape of the economy.

GJELTEN: One big risk is that there'll be a power struggle over who runs Venezuela after Chavez. Within the regime, there are two main players. Vice President Maduro is said to be the leader of the pro-Cuba faction in the government. Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, is considered close to the army. Risa Grais-Targow says they are longtime rivals.

GRAIS-TARGOW: Up until this point, Chavez's personality, his charisma, has been able to unify those two factions. Without him, it becomes a lot less certain.

GJELTEN: And those are just the players inside the government. Former assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega lists the outside actors with a stake in how things develop in Venezuela.

ROGER NORIEGA: You have the Cubans who are essentially managing this entire succession, as crazy as that sounds, the Russians, the Chinese who are bankrolling this thing, the Iranians who are complicit with this regime, and the narco-traffickers who have gotten very used to the use of Venezuelan territory with impunity.

GJELTEN: Those are some pretty formidable players. Outside the government, Venezuela's opposition movement is still weak.

NORIEGA: The opposition is up against a seven-headed hydra, and frankly, they don't even seem to be aware of what they're up against, let alone have a plan for dealing with it.

GJELTEN: U.S. policymakers, it seems, do have a plan for dealing with a post-Chavez Venezuela. Top State Department officials recently initiated a conversation with Nicolas Maduro, the man most likely to succeed Chavez. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said yesterday those contacts do not mean there's, quote, "a made in America" solution here.

VICTORIA NULAND: We seek a more functional, more productive relationship with Venezuela. We remain open to dialogue on a range of issues of mutual interest. But in terms of any transition, any succession, it's got to be constitutional and it's got to be decided by Venezuelans.

GJELTEN: Roger Noriega, who held the top Latin America job under George W. Bush, thinks even the contact with Maduro was a mistake. His idea: Let the Chavez factions fight it out.

NORIEGA: If you have a certain amount of instability, it will shake up the system, create doubts in the system, and it's a possibility that we'll have people defecting, people who are potential witnesses in the criminality of the regime. And I just think it doesn't make any sense whatsoever for us to be stepping in without any particular agenda into the middle of that fight.

GJELTEN: A senior U.S. government official who asked not to be identified disputes whether U.S. contacts could strengthen one rival or another in Venezuela, and he pushes back against the notion that the U.S. does not have a particular agenda with Venezuela. We have profound interests there, he says, against narcotics trafficking and terrorism. We're defending those interests.

We did not get traction with Chavez, he says. With Maduro, we're getting more traction. And now there could be a payoff. If Maduro replaces Hugo Chavez as president, U.S.-Venezuela relations might well improve. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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