Shadow Government

Preparing for a post-Hugo Venezuela

With drips and drabs of information, Hugo Chávez is slowly informing the world that he is seriously ill. After finally admitting he has cancer, this week he said he may be undergoing either chemotherapy or radiation treatment over the next few months.

While still unknown is what type of cancer he has or the prognosis, it seems safe to assume that his medical condition will certainly impair his ability to continue governing Venezuela as before.

Indeed, all indications are he is huddling today with his Cuban advisors to lay the groundwork for a succession to ensure the survival of Chavismo without its loquacious founder.

Vice President Elias Jaua, a Chávez (and Fidel Castro) loyalist, is officially next in line of succession, but he is a colorless apparatchik whom no one considers to be the long-term answer. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, another slavish Chávez acolyte, is similarly not seen as a viable replacement.

Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, two powerful figures lurking in the shadows, are Chavistas to the core, but both have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for facilitating narcotics trafficking through Venezuela, disqualifying either from post-Hugo political office. Still, they have the power to make or break Hugo's successor -- and they definitely have the will, given their vulnerability to U.S. legal action if the wrong person replaces Hugo.

Also circling about is an ambitious but corrupt cohort of former government officials that includes national assemblyman Diosdado Cabello (a former vice president), José Vicente Rangel (a former Vice President), and Jesse Chacón (a former minister of the presidency). They are crafty and formidable operators, but their conspicuous venality, and their untrustworthiness as deemed by the Cubans because of their independent thinking, make them non-starters. They nevertheless should be watched. 

Thus, the only one who appears to have the best chance of keeping this motley collection of thuggish characters in check and carrying on Chavismo without Hugo is his older brother Adán .

Adán Chávez, 15 months Hugo's senior, is no stranger to radical left-wing politics. As far back as the early 1980s, he was involved in conspiracies to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Fervently Marxist and pro-Castro, he has served as education minister and ambassador to Cuba and currently serves as governor of Barinas state. He is known as an ideologue through and through.

According to a Wikileaks cable, Chávez confides in only two people: Adán and Fidel Castro.

In late June, Adán made international headlines when he told government supporters that, while they prefer to maintain power through the ballot box, they should not rule out armed struggle if the need arises.

The benediction of Adán already seems to be underway. During Hugo's mysterious stay in Cuba (undergoing surgery), officials floundered about trying to explain Hugo's absence. It was Adán who appeared to be the best informed about what was going on. Also, when Hugo returned to Venezuela, Adán was the only other political figure to appear with him on the balcony of the presidential palace to greet his supporters.

Adán 's problem is that he lacks charisma like the others, but his all-important bloodlines will likely trump that deficiency (much like the dour Raúl has become the titular leader of the decrepit Castro regime in Cuba). The Cubans will make sure of that.

Moreover, also backing Adán will be a rogues' gallery of international stakeholders that have profited immensely from Chávez's largesse. They will also be pushing not only for maintaining the status quo, but the continuation of Chavismo through the 2012 elections. In addition to Cuba, these also include Russia, China, and Iran (including Hezbollah).

What this means for the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. interests will be the subject of future blogs, but, for now, all eyes should be on the political machinations in Caracas that will determine Chavismo's foreseeable future.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

Shadow Government

Present in Asia? With what?

I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis.…Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military. Isn't that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a little and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people and doing more good things for the world -- wouldn't that be a better scenario?"

This was the Chinese People's Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde's suggestion to Americans during the visit of his counterpart Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. Well, we are obliging the Chinese general -- at least in part. We are cutting defense. General Chen would be especially happy to know that in particular we are foregoing investment in the types of systems that help keep us "present" in Asia -- though Admiral Mullen assured Asian audiences that we will be there for the long haul. Whether we are cutting defense in order to improve the livelihood of the American people is a separate, hotly debated question. Color me skeptical.

But on the first part of General Chen's suggestion, here is how we are heeding his advice. We are not properly resourcing: a) the submarines the Navy says it needs, or, for that matter, the number of ships in its own shipbuilding plan; b) stealthy tactical aircraft (by the Air Force's own account, they will face an 800-fighter shortfall later this decade); and c) a long-range bomber, now called "the long-range strike family of systems," particularly by those who think this system is silver bullet for our Asia posture.  We were supposed to be deploying new bombers by 2018. Not a chance. The program is estimated to cost $40-50 billion in total, and respected aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia predicts that we will not see a new bomber until well into the next decade. Yes, that's right, a new bomber somewhere in the 2020s.

So General Chen, no need to worry about our defense spending -- we will not have enough submarines or tactical aircraft, and there is no new bomber on the horizon. All are supposed to play a role in the much vaunted AirSea Battle strategy that is our answer to China's growing military power.

But Mullen insists, as did Secretary Gates and other top U.S. leaders, we will still be there for our friends and our allies.  Given the numbers, the next time a leading U.S. official insists that we are going to be "present" in Asia, journalists have a duty to ask, "With what?"

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images