By Walter Molano, Guest Columnist
One of the recurrent themes of J.M.W. Turner's masterpieces is the fury of the distant storm.
Through the use of perspective and colour, humans are reduced in size and scope by the blinding force of nature. One is left with a feeling of helplessness as the distant chaos marches ever closer.
The same can be said in the few hours after President Hugo Chávez's death. Although the Venezuelan leader battled cancer for almost two years, his demise was still a shock.
There were no immediate signs of commotion in Caracas, as the words of condolences cascaded from around the globe. Most Latin American newspapers exalted Chávez's record in pulling millions of Venezuelans out of abject poverty by improving the provision of health, education and housing.
For the next week, the nation will be in a state of mourning as countrymen and diplomats file past his coffin to pay their last respects.
Millions took to the streets last night to display their solidarity, carrying pictures of their beloved leader and banners eulogising his accomplishments. With such outpouring of support, it is hard to image that the country is anything but unified behind the deceased head of state.
However, like Turner's works of art, a close look at the horizon shows a black line of distant clouds.
Prior to the election of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela was in a state of decline. The economy's deep dependence on a highly volatile commodity was destabilising. In an attempt to socialise the immense benefits produced by the oil industry, the government decided to nationalise the sector in 1971 - thus creating PDVSA.
However, the nationalisation did not change things. On the contrary, they made them worse.
The vast riches generated by the company helped produce great fortunes for the small group of Venezuelans who were sufficiently well-connected to provide it with goods and services. PDVSA workers, engineers and managers became some of the best-paid people in the country, leading to a polarisation of Venezuelan society.
By the late 1990s, Venezuela had the worst income distribution in the region - with more than two-thirds of the population living at or below the poverty line.
It was within this turbulence that Hugo Chávez arrived on the scene, breaking the hegemony of PDVSA and the institutions that were used to keep a powerful oligarchy in place.
By increasing the state's resources, Chávez was able to expand social programmes, thus leading to sharp improvements in literacy rates, income distribution and infant mortality. Yet, to do so, he centralised most of the country's institutions within his own grasp.
rewriting the constitution
In addition to dismantling PDVSA, he broke the power of the legislature and judiciary. He rewrote the constitution and nationalised large parts of the economy. He surrounded himself with non-charismatic loyalists who allowed him to bask in the glory of the country's adulation. That is why his sudden demise will herald a new era of instability.
None of his senior lieutenants have the charisma and personality needed to fill the void. They will not be able to lead and discipline the various factions that chafed under the Bolivarian leash for the past 14 years.
That is why anyone who thinks that Venezuela will now embark on an era of economic reforms and liberalisation are deluding themselves. If anything, the country's new leadership will become even more radical by fully embracing the tenets of Bolivarian socialism and ensuring that the electorate remains loyal by increasing redistributive measures.
They will move closer into the orbit of traditional friends, such as Cuba, China and Iran, eschewing anything and anyone who may threaten their grip on power.
Evidence of such behaviour was on display Tuesday as the Venezuelan government suddenly expelled two US military attachés.
The armed forces were called out to the streets and Vice-President Maduro exalted the population to demonstrate their support for the deceased leader. Even the members of the opposition and clergy urged peace and calm, suggesting that they were cognisant of the chaos that lay ahead.
However, the most visible fissures were seen within the Bolivarian movement. The Venezuelan constitution clearly states that the presidency should pass to the Speaker of the National Assembly if the president dies, but the mantle was passed to the vice-president.
This was supposed to be a temporary measure until Chávez was sworn in. Unfortunately, he died before his inauguration, and now Cabello should be in command.
To make matters worse, the country will soon embark on a period of political campaigning, muck-racking and electioneering. Therefore, the transition of power will be anything but pleasant.
Yet, there is nothing we can do. Like the passive viewers of a Turner painting at the National Gallery, we are helpless to do anything that will arrest the calamity that lies on the horizon.
Dr Walter T. Molano is a managing partner and the head of research at BCP Securities LLC. email@example.com