Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has tried for 10 months to conceal the fact that he is losing his bout with cancer, determined to appear in command of his revolutionary regime and the nation’s future. This past Holy Week, however, television cameras captured him pleading for his life before a crucifix in his hometown church, his mother looking on without the slightest glint of hope on her face. Chávez’s raw emotion startled his inner circle and led some to question his mental health. As a result, according to my sources inside the presidential palace, Minister of Defense Gen. Henry Rangel Silva has developed a plan to impose martial law if Chávez’s deteriorating condition causes any hint of instability.
Pretty dramatic stuff. So why isn’t anyone outside Venezuela paying attention? Some cynics in that country still believe Chávez is hyping his illness for political advantage, while his most fervent followers expect him to make a miraculous recovery. The democratic opposition is cautiously preparing for a competitive presidential election set for Oct. 7 — against Chávez or a substitute. And policymakers in Washington and most regional capitals are slumbering on the sidelines.
In my estimation, the approaching death of the Venezuelan caudillo could put the country on the path toward a political and social meltdown. The military cadre installed by Chávez in January already is behaving like a de facto regime determined to hold onto power at all costs. And Havana, Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing are moving to protect their interests. If U.S. President Barack Obama were to show some energetic engagement as Chávez fades, he could begin to put the brakes on Venezuela’s slide, reverse Chávismo‘s destructive agenda, and reclaim a role for the United States in its own neighborhood. But if he fails to act, there will be hell to pay.
Sources close to Chávez’s medical team tell me that for months, his doctors have been doing little more than treating symptoms, trying to stabilize their workaholic patient long enough to administer last-ditch chemo and radiation therapies. In that moment of Chávez’s very public prayer for a miracle, he set aside his obsession with routing his opposition or engineering a succession of power to hardline loyalists. Perhaps he knows that his lieutenants and foreign allies are behaving as if he were already dead — consolidating power, fashioning a “revolutionary junta,” and plotting repressive measures.
The buildup to this weekend’s sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, has been rife with drama. Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, announced that he will skip the 34-country conference because it excludes Cuba, which does not belong to the Organization of American States (membership requirement: democracy). The presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua sparred publicly with the president of Guatemala over a drug legalization proposal. And not to be outdone, Cuba’s Fidel Castro ridiculed U.S. President Barack Obama‘s reported plan to wear a guayabera — a light tropical dress shirt originating in Cuba — at the summit.
Yet for all the hoopla, the summit will likely produce little of substance. There are already reports that officials will sidestep hot-button issues such as drug policy and the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. In fact, this is in keeping with the way these gatherings typically play out in Latin America, a land in which a dizzying array of acronymed intergovernmental organizations host an endless but ultimately empty parade of summits.
Sure, there have been some successes. The inaugural Summit of the Americas in 1994 marked a high point of goodwill between the United States and Latin American countries (Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his like-minded allies had yet to assume power) and launched a proposal — never realized — for a free-trade bloc stretching from “Alaska to Argentina.” The third Summit of the Americas in 2001 produced the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which emphasized the importance of democratic institutions in the Americas.
But the summits are more often remembered for temper tantrums and mischievous antics by government leaders — with Chávez in particular at the center of many of the tempests. If past Latin American summits are any guide, we should expect some serious sparks to fly in Cartagena. Here are some of the least auspicious moments from summits past.
What: Ibero-American Summit
Where: Asunción, Paraguay
Meltdown: The annual gathering of leaders from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of Europe and the Americas was marred by the absence of several heads of state, including Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who claimed they had to prepare for an upcoming — and implicitly more important — G-20 summit in France.
The poor attendance — and surely the optics of their king and prime minister mingling with lower level officials — enraged Spanish news outlets, which deemed the summit a demoralizing failure. “The summit has become redundant for Latin American powers, who already have their own voice in other, more global forums,” La Voz de Galicia lamented.