The world will remember Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s speech on Thursday evening as the moment when he announced that he’s being treated for cancer. For Venezuelans, though, the speech was almost as notable for another reason: Perhaps for the first time in 12 years of increasingly personalist rule, we heard the president reading, actually reading, from a prepared text. And that, for a leader who’s elevated the extemporaneous rant into a kind of governing philosophy, was startling in itself.

The speech—weirdly formal, occasionally stilted, coming from a man visibly straining to hold back tears—was a puzzling end to a remarkable disappearing act. Up until his address, Chávez had vanished from public view for an unprecedented three weeks, unleashing a tsunami of speculation that had already badly destabilized his own government. Yet if Thursday’s speech was aimed at quelling speculation, it was certainly badly misjudged: Entirely devoid of medical detail and delivered in a style that was palpably not Chávez’s own, it felt as though it had been delivered by an uncannily talented body double. Far from putting an end to the rampant speculation that’s taken over Venezuela’s public sphere in recent weeks, the performance seems likely to push Venezuela down the road of dangerous destabilization. 

The trouble is that elections are not scheduled for another 18 months, and in one way or another Chavista operatives will have to keep control of the country until then. Yet everyone in Venezuela—Chavista or not—can see that “Chavismo without Chávez” is not a stable proposition. When a government is as dominated by a single charismatic leader as Venezuela’s has been, a serious illness is coterminous with a stability crisis. 

A comparison with Cuba is instructive here. Over five decades in power, Fidel Castro managed to institutionalize communist dictatorship enough to keep the country stable even through his protracted illness in 2007-2009. During that time, his brother was able to step into the breach with nary a peep of dissent.

Venezuela’s much younger hard-left experiment, by contrast, has shallower institutional roots. Venezuelans have been telling pollsters for years that they like their president but despise his ministers. Compared to the all-encompassing political machine that is the Communist Party of Cuba, Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is weak indeed: a loose confederation of civilian and military factional leaders brought together, under Chávez, mostly as part of the hunt for petrostate spoils.

Moreover, Venezuela’s constitution bars the president from appointing relatives to the vice-presidency. So Chávez can’t evade PSUV’s factional minefield by appointing his brother Adan to take his place. Any imaginable choice for his VP spot—including the current holder, former student radical Elías Jaua—will cause deep disquiet among rivals in the high-stakes game for control of the state’s oil resources.

To see what’s so unstable about this arrangement, you could do worse than to flip through the docket of Connecticut’s Federal District Court. In March, Francisco Illaramendi pled guilty to a complex, $600 million ponzi scheme seeded with money from Venezuelan oil workers’ pension fund. It stands to reason that Illarramendi, who now faces 70 years in prison for fraud and obstruction of justice, must have relied on connivance from financial officials at Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, PDVSA.

Yet no proper investigation is likely to look into it on the Venezuelan side, simply because a powerful Chavista faction head (Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez) has a direct line to Chávez and, through him, to the national prosecuting authorities. The Illarramendi case, like every case, runs cold once you hit the shores of Venezuela. Indeed, we only tend to hear of such cases when they involve a blunder beyond the border, often in the efforts of corrupt officials to move their loot off shore.

Trouble is, Venezuela is full of Illarramendis. The heady mix of massive oil rents, zero transparency, multiple black market arbitrage opportunities, and official impunity Chávez has presided over amounts to Crony Socialism. In this game, absolute political fealty to Chávez can be traded for opportunities to enrich oneself. Not surprisingly, Chavista factions have long competed for such opportunities. Kickbacks on any one public procurement contract can benefit only one faction, and the result has long been tough jockeying for position among faction heads. Trust is scarce, and the job of arbitrating between factions when disputes arise has always fallen to the only player in a position to impose a settlement: Hugo Chávez.

Hence the intense jitters with which the pro-Chávez movement will greet Chávez’s battle with cancer. With an incapacitated, possibly dying, but certainly diminished Chávez, Venezuela is to be run by faction heads, each sitting on a pile of cash, many commanding armed men, all of whom have dirt on the others, and none of whom quite fully trusts the others to keep them out of trouble in Chávez’s absence. Tick-tock-tick-tock ….

To be sure, for the moment, even in illness, the prospect of Chávez’s eventual return can and will keep the peace. It is lost on no one that leading Cuban communists who got too far ahead of themselves when Fidel was ill ended up getting brutally purged—nobody wants to move first. But if and when factional leaders begin to calculate that Chávez may not come back at all, the equation begins to change, and the logic of pre-emption begins to come to the fore—nobody will want to move last, either.

Francisco Toro blogs about the Chávez Era at CaracasChronicles.com.