With Chavez Ailing, Venezuela is Front and (More) Center

President Hugo Chavez greets people as he arrives at a Caracas polling station on Oct. 7 during Venezuela's presidential election Photograph by Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Is Chavismo, the brand of export-ready, nose-thumbing leftism practiced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, much possible with him no longer in power?

Unlikely, says the market, which has bid up Venezuelan debt, sending benchmark yields to a five-year low, on speculation that the ex-paratrooper will be unable to complete his third term after acknowledging the return of his cancer. The country’s bonds are up 45 percent this year, the second-best showing in all emerging markets, next to tiny Côte d’Ivoire. The Caracas stock exchange—oxymoronic, if you think about it—is up nearly 300 percent year-to-date.

Since taking office in 1998, Chavez, 58, has expropriated more than 1,000 companies and pushed through price controls to turn South America’s biggest oil producer into an example of socialism.

On Monday, Chavez shuttled back to Cuba for further surgery after exhorting his countrymen to vote for Vice President Nicolas Maduro if he is unable to stay in office. Just two months after winning re-election for a third six-year term,“El Comandante” was out of the public eye for three weeks leading up to Dec. 7.

“Any successor, whether from the opposition, or handpicked by him, will be more moderate, more market-friendly than Chavez has been,” says Kathryn Rooney Vera, a macroeconomic strategist with Miami-based Bulltick Capital Markets.

The average yields on the South American country’s dollar debt fell to 9.4 percent on Dec. 6, the lowest since February 2008, after rising as high as 11.51 percent following Chavez’s reelection, according to the JPMorgan EMBI Global Index. The yield on Venezuela’s dollar bonds due 2027 is at its the lowest since November 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“This is not Cuba, nor is it a monarchy where a king designates the next king,” remarked Henrique Capriles, the economically more moderate candidate who opposed Chavez in October, on Sunday. “The last word belongs to the people.” Translation: Capriles is raring for another chance at the presidency.

Venezuelan law stipulates that if Chavez cannot carry out his duties, his vice president would take over until the beginning of a new presidential term on Jan. 10. Should Chavez then not be able to attend his inauguration, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly would assume power while elections are arranged within 30 days. If Chavez does take office but falls too ill within his first four years, his vice president would assume the presidency for 30 days while elections are held.

Venezuela remains one of the more peculiar stories in all emerging marketdom. Thanks to underinvestment by Chavez and state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, the country has experienced declining oil production despite having the world’s largest proven reserves—an especially costly missed opportunity for an economy with such high fiscal deficits, under a ruler whose time in office has coincided with oil prices soaring from $10 a barrel to triple digits. Even so, Chavez has never defaulted on the nation’s external debt.

Bulltick’s Vera thinks a change of presidential power—particularly a Capriles ascension—could keep pushing down Venezuela’s benchmark borrowing costs to as little as a third of the yield they hit last year.

That speaks volumes about the clout one man has had on a nation’s reputation with markets. “To oversee 14 years of economic decay and still remain so popular …,” she says, “well, no one has Chavez’s charisma.”

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