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 ….