As it now appears a near certainty that Hugo Chávez will either soon resign the presidency or die as a consequence of his second recurrence of an unspecified pelvic cancer, it seems like a good time to give my two cents on the situation. I have already mused on this topic before, back when Chávez was first being treated, and I largely think things will play out in the way that I predicted; chavismo will certainly outlast Chávez and chavismo sin Chávez will have difficulty staying unified in much the same way that peronismo has splintered over the past five decades. I am certainly not the only person who has made that analysis of this situation but I have noticed that few people are discussing the impact of the military in this whole process, particularly in a situation where Chávez dies before an election for his successor can take place and the opposition wins that election.
In that situation, I see a chance of instability coming from the military because of the reported close ties between high ranking chavista officers and the rampant and growing drug trade flowing from Colombia through Venezuela en route to the US and Europe. In this context, the election of an opposition president in what amounts to a snap election (it would have to occur within 30 of Chávez permanently leaving office of dying) would put these officers in a serious predicament. Corruption is bad enough, but is so pervasive in Venezuela at this point that it would be nearly impossible for an incoming government to deal with even a fraction of those involved amid the other problems it would be facing in its first chance at governing in half a generation. Involvement in drug trafficking, on the other hand, is a much more serious type of corruption than skimming money from government contracts or the oil sector. These officers have far more to lose from the end of chavismo than many of its other beneficiaries, and in the short span between Chávez leaving, the election and a hypothetical president from the opposition taking office, they would have very little opportunity to cover their tracks or escape with what they can (particularly since fewer foreign governments would look sympathetically toward them). In such a situation, it’s not difficult to imagine how a few might attempt to block the new government as a form of self-protection, perhaps while claiming to be defending the revolution from the opposition and the incompetent civilian wing of chavismo that had just betrayed it by losing.
All that said, I don’t see this situation playing out. By naming a successor and so pointedly stipulating that the letter of the constitution should be followed, Chávez has indicated that he is more concerned with prolonging his movement than remaining completely in control until the moment he dies. It seems likely to me that he will, to the extent his health allows, step down with time enough to ensure that Nicolás Maduro—his anointed successor—gets elected. Even if he does die before then, I still believe that chavismo has the resources of the state behind it to a degree that it can win a fair enough election (i.e. not blatantly fraudulent enough to risk more than condemnation from a bunch of countries that chavismo disdains anyway) even without Chávez there to campaign. Beyond that point, with the economy on the brink, crime pervasive and the general unpopularity of non-Chávez chavistas, I see little chance that chavismo can win a subsequent election without becoming increasingly overtly authoritarian. By that next election, at least, those with the really dirty hands will have had time to prepare.