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After Chavez: A crapshoot

| Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 9:09 p.m.

Cancer-stricken Hugo Chavez's seemingly imminent exit as Venezuela's president confronts America and its allies with perilous uncertainty.

Mr. Chavez won re-election in October. But he hasn't been seen or heard from publicly since surgery in Havana more than a month ago. He didn't return in time for his inauguration last Thursday. Supporters and opponents disagree on whether Venezuela's Constitution — which calls for an election in 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated — allows him to be sworn in later.

In December, Chavez named as his successor Nicolas Maduro, his vice president and foreign minister. Miami Herald columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner says Chavez and his closest allies, Cuba's Castro brothers, see Mr. Maduro as likely to continue oil-rich Venezuela's estimated $10 billion annual subsidies for Cuba — and have been plotting Maduro's ascent since summer 2011.

But perpetuating Cuba's influence doesn't sit well with many Venezuelans who likely support Henrique Capriles — the state governor who lost to Chavez in October — in an election against Maduro. Cuba, desperate for Venezuelan subsidies to continue, might lack the wherewithal to install Maduro. And no one should count on Venezuela's succession respecting the rule of law.

If neither Mr. Capriles nor Maduro fills a post-Chavez power vacuum, what thug might? Venezuela's next regime could be even worse — and America and its allies must be ready for that grim scenario.

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