Since 1999,Venezuelahas continued sliding deeper into authoritarianism, populism, militarism, and anti-Americanism. Displaying formidable skills in winning elections, demagoguery, and public showmanship, Hugo Chavez has dominated Venezuela’s polarized politics and run his country as a personal fiefdom for more than a decade.

This situation may be about to change. In the past two years, two things have occurred to make one think differently about Venezuela. The first was the announcement in mid-2011 that Chavez is suffering from an undisclosed but aggressive cancer. The second was selection of a single opposition candidate—Henri Capriles Radonski—in February 2012 to stand against Chavez in the October presidential election.

Faced with a serious electoral challenge, Chavez has been commuting back and forth to Havanasince February. Physical evidence and steady outpourings of the rumor factory say that despite three surgeries and other treatments, Chavez’s health continues to deteriorate. Incapacity and/or death appear increasingly probable within months. Recent tearful public appearances by Chavez, including prayers for a miraculous recovery, add credence to the assumption.

The announcement that Chavez had called into existence a Council of State, a mechanism permitted in the 1999 Constitution, has broadened speculation about who will set the rules for succession or governance after Chavez. Chavez previously brooked no rivals, moving loyalists in and out of office at will.

An ailing Chavez needs help to face the election and preserve his Bolivarian Revolution. Those jockeying for influence and preference include Vice President Elias Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro, and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. Others focus attention on a band of loyal but corrupt soldiers, such Minister of Defense Rangel Silva and General Cliver Alcala. Many argue that without Chavez, there will be no Chavismo. No one, however, can rule out the emergence of a narco-state under military dominance or an undemocratic junta of Chavista diehards.

One of the first tasks Chavez assigned the council is to prepare for Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a body that has been critical of Chavez’s record on human rights. Chavez’s goal is a Latin American-only body ready to whitewash his numerous encroachments on basic rights and liberties.

Ongoing uncertainty about Chavez’s health, secretive political skullduggery, and potential alterations in Venezuela’s democratic order may mean that President Obama’s next big democracy and human rights challenge may not be in China, but much closer to home.