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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's grave health condition and his prolonged confinement in a Cuban hospital have triggered a constitutional crisis and a power struggle between two minions.

The nature of the "Bolivarian" regime – a classic Latin American populist state led by a caudillo – explains the chaos in Venezuela. No one knows what to do.

Unlike an institutionalized single-party dictatorship, such as Mexico's old system under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, authority in Venezuela can't migrate easily from one leader to the next because the power structures are not mightier than the person who embodies them. Mexican presidents were almighty but only during their six-year term, after which they were vilified by their successor so the power structures could remain under a veneer of renewal.

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In Venezuela, no such arrangement exists, which is why a month ago, soon after his re-election to a fourth term, Mr. Chavez revealed that his cancer had resurfaced and asked Venezuelans to choose Nicolás Maduro, whom he had hastily appointed vice-president, should he be unable to go on.

According to the constitution, if the president-elect is unable to take the oath because of an "absolute" absence, he must be replaced with the president of the National Assembly and new elections held. If the "absolute" absence takes place after he's sworn in, the vice-president replaces the president and calls new elections. With the argument that Mr. Chavez is only "temporarily" absent, his officials are furiously manoeuvring to keep him as president. This week, they decided to "postpone" the swearing-in ceremony that should have taken place on Jan. 10 (Venezuela's top court endorsed the delay on Wednesday) in what looks like an open violation of the constitution, given that Mr. Chavez's absence bears the hallmarks of a permanent condition.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, a former army lieutenant who presides over the National Assembly, are struggling for the succession.

Mr. Maduro has the support of three sources of power linked to Mr. Chavez: the President's elder daughter, Rosa Virginia, and her husband, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, both of whom have assumed great influence during the leader's cancer drama; Cuba, a close ally of Venezuela that considers Mr. Maduro the most reliable heir; and Rafael Ramírez, the head of Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the oil giant. At the cost of reducing its productivity by 20 per cent, Mr. Ramírez keeps milking the PDVSA cow that's the lifeblood of the regime. Last year, out of a total of $125-billion in sales, $24-billion were channelled to the government as taxes and royalties and $30-billion directly to Mr. Chavez's discretionary fund.

Mr. Cabello, meanwhile, has ascendancy over the military – he took part in the coup attempt led by Mr. Chavez against a legitimate government back in 1992, and has involved the army in social programs. He has some legitimacy because he helped reverse an overthrow of Mr. Chavez in 2002 and is close to the "Bolivarian" oligarchy. But he will have a hard time going against Mr. Maduro – it would mean disobeying the caudillo's plans and forcing the military to use massive force against a predictable backlash from the popular base.

A retired officer, Mr. Cabello has no direct command of troops. Mr. Chavez recently promoted General Carlos Alcalá as commander of the army and Wilmer Barrientos as head of the Operational Strategic Command in order to dilute the power of other officers with prolonged tenures. He also ensured that 11 of the 24 state governors recently elected were former members of the military – a way to disperse military power as well as strengthen the military-civilian entente.

Does this mean Mr. Maduro will prevail? Only in the short run. Beyond that, the regime is doomed. No one commands the control and popularity that Mr. Chavez enjoyed. The economy is dismal: Inflation is running at 25 per cent and an imminent devaluation will fuel it further. There was no economic growth in 2011 and, last year, it was artificially generated thanks to a colossal fiscal deficit (amounting to more than 16 per cent of GDP). Government debt is 10 times larger than when Mr. Chavez came to power. The populist mirage that has made it possible for Venezuelans to fill up their gas tanks for less than $1 and to import ever-increasing amounts of goods and services while producing little will end sooner rather than later.

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Social conditions, including the fourth-highest homicide rate in the world, necessitate that the populist machinery run smoothly. If it doesn't, with the Chavez charisma out of the way, there will be little love left for the minions.

Whether the opposition will get a fair chance anytime soon is another matter. Mr. Maduro and Mr. Cabello could stick together for a while. Terrified of score settling, the military could fire on the populace should the streets fill with anti-government demonstrators. And it can't be ruled out that one of the leaders vying for control will make overtures to the opposition to negotiate a transition.

Whatever the case, the messy post-Chavez era has begun while the caudillo nears judgment day in Havana.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the California-based Independent Institute and the editor of Lessons from the Poor.

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