All this would be more amusing if the stakes were not so high. The demise of Chavez — if that is what is to happen — could open the way to epochal change in a region that for a decade has been divided, and sometimes polarized, between rapidly growing and modernizing democracies such as Mexico, Chile and Brazil and a bloc of authoritarian-minded, anti-American, populist throwbacks led by Venezuela. To be sure, the modernizers won the ideological battle long ago — Chavez’s popularity ratings among Latin Americans are lower than any leader in the hemisphere other than Fidel Castro.

But thanks to Venezuela’s oil wealth, Chavez has managed to hold together a bloc that includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and, to a lesser degree, Argentina. Their leaders have followed his lead in entrenching themselves in power, persecuting opponents and forging alliances with Iran. They are well compensated for their trouble: Daniel Ortega receives and personally disposes of $500 million a year from Chavez, an amount equal to 7 percent of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product. Then there is Cuba: Chavez supplies the Castros with 100,000 barrels of oil a day and a total subsidy worth more than 5 percent of Cuba’s GDP. Without that lucre, the communist regime might finally collapse.

No wonder the Castros are doing their best to keep their golden goose alive — and to try and install another when he goes. Chavez’s last public act was to name as his successor Maduro, who has been a Cuban protege since his post-high-school days.