A Venezuelan government statement Thursday said that President Hugo Chavez, who has been secreted inside a Cuban hospital since undergoing surgery on Dec. 11, was facing “complications” from “a severe lung infection.” As has been the case throughout his nearly two-year bout with cancer, details of the strongman’s condition, treatment and prognosis are unavailable. But Venezuelans are bracing themselves for the death of the caudillo who has ruled them — and wrecked their once-prosperous country — over the past 13 years. The United States and its Latin American allies need to prepare, as well.

Chavez’s condition arrived at a critical moment: He is due to be sworn in next Thursday for another six-year term in office. Having won re-election in October after assuring Venezuelans that he was fully cured, the president disappeared soon afterward; in his last appearance before departing for Cuba, he appointed foreign minister Nicolas Maduro as his vice president and political successor. If Chavez is too ill to attend his inauguration, authorities are saying, they will simply delay it — a stretch of the constitution’s ambiguous wording. But when and if he dies, the constitution is clear: A new election for president should be held within 30 days.

That will be a critical test of Venezuela’s post-Chavez direction. The ruler’s inner circle, which has been gathering around him in Cuba, may consider postponing the election or even calling it off. Their fear — and that of the Castro regime in Cuba — is that a fair vote would be won by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the October presidential ballot but is more popular than Maduro. Maduro is Cuba’s candidate, the successor most likely to ensure continued deliveries of the heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil that is keeping the Communist regime afloat.

That’s why the first responsibility of the United States and Venezuelan neighbors such as Brazil should be to insist that the presidential election be held and that it be free and fair. The State Department rightly made that demand public on Thursday, following recent private contacts between officials of the two governments. The administration should be prepared to respond quickly if Chavez’s followers or military leaders — some of whom are under U.S. sanction for drug trafficking — attempt a coup.

Whoever succeeds Chavez will face a catastrophic economic situation. To win re-election, Chavez spent wildly last year, increasing the budget deficit to 20 percent of gross domestic product; his successor will be forced to order a sharp and painful devaluation. That will only worsen already high inflation and shortages of staple foods. When poor Venezuelans realize that lavish pre-election promises of new apartments and appliances won’t be delivered, anger toward the new leader may swell.

Sadly, the economic pain caused by Chavez could, after his death, help create a political movement that will revere his memory. Forty years after the death of Juan Peron, Peronism still haunts and holds back Argentina. If Venezuela is to escape a similar curse, Chavez’s successors will have to balance economic stabilization against the need to build a political system where democracy, and not autocratic populism, can thrive.

The Washington Post (Jan. 6)