Does a Chavez Exit Really Spell Disaster for Cuba?

Could the end really be very, very near for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez? If it comes before his January 10, 2013 swearing in, thus triggering a new presidential election just 30 days later, can his vice president, Nicolas Maduro step into his shoes and keep his coalition together to continue governing in his mold? Or, could it mean that  Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in this fall's presidential election, gets a second shot at the presidency?

These are the questions Venezuela watchers are asking as they anxiously wait to see how Chavez, who has traveled this week to Cuba for his third cancer surgery in the last year and a half, pulls through this latest test. The fact that Chavez's cancer returned so quickly after his announcement last summer that he was cancer-free doesn't bode well for the Venezuelan president's prospects (not least, his prospects of being able to take office and govern in the coming months). And with Chavez himself acknowleging the precariousness of his situation by naming his preferred successor, his vice president, it seems all but certain that Venezuelans are in for a change in leadership in the coming days, weeks or months. This possibility naturally could have profound implications for Venezuela's economy, which faces significant and growing challenges ahead, especially given the outsize role oil (and oil prices) plays in the economy.

These questions may again be put off if Chavez manages to recover and take office for some months. But with the writing clearly on the wall, many Cuba watchers note that the Cuban government, so reliant on Chavez's close economic cooperation and patronage, can not afford to push its own urgent questions aside. What would happen if a new Venezuelan does not continue heavy investment in and assistance to Cuba? Will Cuba's economy go into a freefall if Venezuela backs off?

It's unlikely that Cuba without Chavez would collapse, as it did when it lost the Soviets' subsidies, or at least not immediately. But that is in part because a Chavez exit doesn't have to spell the end of Venezuelan-Cuban economic relations. It's hard to imagine even Capriles, who has been very critical of Chavez's doting on Cuba, would suddenly turn the Cubans out. He'd likely send home Cuba's military and intelligence advisors, but an immediate and unceremonious economic adjustment could be bad politics. While many Venezuelans resent their nation's dollars flowing into Cuba, many others benefit, especially from the presence of Cuban doctors in the most underserved neighborhoods. The more strategic shift would be to maintain the doctors' presence for a short while and then begin negotiations to adjust the terms of "trade", and at the same time, if the goal is to not rely on Cuban doctors, to focus effort on training Venezuelan doctors.

Pulling the rug out from beneath Cuba, at a time when Raul Castro's government is overhauling the economy, could also be bad politics in the wider region as well. Cuba enjoys good relationships around the hemisphere, and is a full-fledged member of numerous regional organizations and groups, such as the Rio Group, CELAC and ALBA.  In 2009, the 34 nations of the Organization of American States, which the U.S. has long dominated, voted to withdraw Cuba's 1963 suspension from the Organization of American States (the United States went along after getting assurances that Cuba would still need to seek re-admission and abide by the OAS's Democratic Charter). And, Cuba's exclusion at last spring's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena dominated the news out of that presidential level meeting, with several of the region's presidents insisting that Cuba's president be included at the next Summit, and even threatening to boycott it if Cuba is not included. And now Cuba is playing a critical role in bringing the FARC together with the Colombian government in an effort to help bring about a lasting peace in that country, something in which Venezuela also has an interest.

With Chavez's political career coming to an end, the hemisphere has a chance to lower ideological tensions; a new Venezuelan president kicking Cuba to the curb would not serve that aim. However, a new Venezuelan president might have a unique opportunity to dialogue with Cuba on issues of consequence, which if approached on equal footing, Cuba might be willing to agree to - especially if it means no abrupt cuts to economic ties. But cutting Cuba off in the middle of its fledging economic reforms could have serious consequences, and not necessarily good ones. Paced well, a restructured, less robust relationship is in both countries' interest.

For the time being, we'll all just have to wait and wonder what's in store for Venezuela's Chavez, and what's in store for the island he took under his (economic) wing more than a decade after Fidel Castro took Chavez under his (political) wing.