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After Hugo Chavez, what's next for Venezuela (and the world)?
The populist Venezuelan firebrand loomed large over his country and the rest of Latin America. Can anyone fill his enormous shoes?
 
Chavez attends a military parade in Caracas in April 2005.
Chavez attends a military parade in Caracas in April 2005. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias died at age 58 on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, leaving behind a complicated legacy that includes improving the lives of the poor, nationalizing private industry and enterprise, autocratically amassing power, and deeply polarizing his country and the wider region. After 14 years of dominating Venezuelan politics and casting his shadow over the rest of the world, Chavez in death creates a gaping void. Venezuelans, and many people outside of Chavez's self-styled Bolivarian Republic, are wondering: What happens now?

The easy part is the nuts and bolts of transitioning to a new leader: Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Tuesday that elections for a new president will be scheduled within 30 days, and that Venezuela will continue to be run by Vice President Nicolas Maduro until a new president — quite probably Maduro himself — is sworn in. Before his final surgery, Chavez named the former bus driver as his hand-picked successor, though the constitution appears to designate the speaker of the National Assembly as interim leader. Maduro is expected to face opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski in the election. Venezuela is officially in a seven-day period of mourning, and Chavez will be buried after an elaborate state funeral on Friday.

Pretty much everything else is speculation, informed or otherwise. Chavez's largesse with his own population and his regional allies, combined with falling oil prices, mismanagement of resources, and a lack of investment in Venezuela's economy, has left his country an economic basket case. Inflation is rampant, and the murder rate is the second highest in the world, after Honduras. But Chavez largely re-created the government in his own image, and his popularity, especially with Venezuela's poor, will probably boost Maduro into office. Still, that's not a sure bet.

Capriles, the opposition leader, lost to Chavez by 11 points in the October election, "but he has twice beaten top Chavez lieutenants in running for governor of his state, Miranda, which includes part of Caracas," says William Neuman in The New York Times. And the combination of Carpriles and a group called the Democratic Unity Roundtable is probably the strongest opposition coalition the Chavistas have ever faced. Maduro also doesn't have "Chavez's visceral connection to the masses of Venezuela's poor." But even if he does win the next election, Maduro "may have a hard time holding together Mr. Chavez's movement while fending off resistance from what is likely to be a revived opposition."

The change in power will be felt beyond Venezuela's borders, too. Chavez famously and frequently berated the U.S. for a whole host of perceived imperial crimes, and "American officials had hoped to improve relations with Venezuela under Mr. Maduro," says The New York Times' Neuman. But that's not looking likely, at least in the short term. After promising, informal talks last year, Venezuela's government "has appeared to shift into campaign mode, taking sweeping aim at the Venezuelan opposition and playing up the opposition's real or alleged ties to the United States."

Maduro didn't shy away from lashing out at the U.S. directly, either. Among other "foreboding" omens, he "virulently accused enemies, domestic and foreign and clearly including the United States, of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy," and announced the expulsion of two U.S. military attachés, say The Associated Press' Frank Bajak and Fabiola Sanchez. And he accused "the historical enemies of our homeland" — i.e., the U.S. — of somehow inducing Chavez's fatal cancer. U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell called that charge "absurd" and said that the diplomatic expulsion "leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested in an improved relationship." It's not clear what the current government is, though, without its larger-than-life leader.

Chavez rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, but never groomed a successor, and many Venezuelans find Maduro, a former union agitator and Chavez's intellectual inferior by bounds, lacking the political heft.... Javier Corrales, an Amherst College political scientist, said he was concerned about the "virulent, anti-American discourse" under Maduro. "It seems to me this is a government that is beginning to blame the United States for all its troubles.... This is very dark," he said. "This is the most nebulous period, the most menacing that the government has been, and the actions have been pretty severe." [AP]

If Chavez's demise isn't necessarily great news for the U.S., though, it's horrible for his leftist allies in Latin America. Using Venezuela's oil wealth, Chavez doled out serious financial aid to Nicaragua, bought billions in iffy sovereign bonds from Argentina, and gave away oil or sold it at a steep discount to 17 nations, most notably Cuba. That made him the de facto leader of Latin America's anti-U.S. hard left, and he will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. "Chavez gave momentum, voice and leadership to the movement, but his leadership concealed the differences among all the leaders," Christopher Sabatini at New York's Americas Society tells Reuters. Now "the fiery, charismatic voice and symbol of that era — and that's what it was — has vanished."

"Chavez's charisma and ruthless political genius fail to explain why he has been able to achieve such regional clout," though, says Alvaro Vargas Llosa at Foreign Policy. But neither does his "canny use of petrodollars" and other spreading around of Venezuela's wealth. He needed both, and now "that effective constellation of money and charisma has now come out of alignment, leaving a power vacuum" — and maybe even "the end of the Latin American Left."

Several Latin American leaders would like to succeed him, but no one meets the necessary conditions: Cuba's blessing; a fat wallet; a country that carries enough demographic, political, and economic weight; potent charisma; a willingness to take almost limitless risks; and sufficient autocratic control to allow him or her to devote major time to permanent revolution away from home.... With no viable leader to take up Chavez's mantle, the future portends disarray for the Latin American Left. [Foreign Policy]

 

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