Beyond the sometimes surreal pathos surrounding Hugo Chavez' illness and his increasingly certain death in the coming months lies the largest crisis that Latin America will have seen since the fall of the dictatorships at the end of the 1990s.
The regime Chavez has built depends almost totally on its ability to channel oil rents to various factions of his party and the military and to use what is left to sustain his huge social effort, both with direct transfers and subsidies, and through a massive influx of Cuban doctors paid for with the cheap oil that keeps Cuba running. Without full control of the state, the whole scheme collapses.
For that reason, the first possible detonator are the October 7 elections, which the opposition appears better prepared to fight better than at any time since Chavez was elected in December 1998, almost 14 years ago. With him healthy, the outcome would be a no brainer. His sickness makes victory less certain and would probably lead to some attempts to ensure that the results are "right." If he dies before the polls, however, all bets are off and in fact, with nobody around him having much charisma or popular appeal, the system could only save itself by preventing the opposition from winning, using all means, including all-out fraud or a military take-over.
The second problem of Chavismo is, if anything, much worse: behind Chavez, there is nothing but an amorphous and circumstantial conflation of groups and individuals, some ideologically committed, though not united, many more opportunistic, but all utterly dependent on their access to the system and none with the ability to keep the coalition together.
Nobody knows exactly the geography of that political landscape, but some of the peaks are worth mentioning: the military, divided, his own United Socialist Party, also divided, along with the latter's Bolivarian National Militias, which could soon have their own tanks, something that the military itself can not like. To the mix, on also needs to add those, both civilians and especially military, who have helped make Venezuela a haven for drug trafficking and a key hub to cocaine trade to Europe. And don't forget the foreigners: Cuban advisers saturate the President's office and his security and intelligence apparatus, where they are well-placed to protect Cuba's vital interests in the country. The survival of Colombia's FARC, under increasing pressure at home, also hinges crucially on the retaining a sanctuary in Venezuela, along with financial, intelligence and logistic support. Less plausibly perhaps, China, Iran and Russia might also joint the fray, as Roger Noriega recently suggested.
For all of those players, the death of Hugo Chavez is a disaster. They have everything to lose and, as a result, they will likely fight dearly. For Venezuelans, already confronting the worst violence in South America (homicide rates are 67 per 100,000, much worse than Mexico (20), and second only to Honduras (70) in the Western hemisphere--the coming years will be awful.
Ways out are unclear, but some outsiders could play an important role in avoiding the worst. This is fodder for another post, however.