The death of longtime Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, after a two-year battle with cancer, left his country bitterly divided and facing an uncertain future. Crowds of mourners lined the streets of Caracas for a glimpse of the hearse carrying his casket, praising him for helping the poor, while political opponents said they hoped Chavez's anti-U.S., take-no-prisoners brand of socialism would now give way to a more inclusive and business-friendly atmosphere. Reaction in the U.S. was split, too, with President Obama taking the middle ground and calling for improved relations between Washington and the leaders who will fill Chavez's shoes in the oil-rich, South American nation.
Some observers think Obama has good reason to be hopeful. Even though the U.S. Embassy's military attache was expelled from Venezuela shortly before Chavez's death was announced Tuesday, say "the country could still be headed for a change that would have infuriated the fiery populist: better relations with the United States."
For 14 years, Chavez sought to build a role as a regional leader by flamboyantly defying what he called the "Yankee empire." He cultivated ties with Iran, a leading U.S. adversary, and assembled a bloc of left-leaning Latin American countries to challenge Washington's political and economic dominance in the Western Hemisphere.
Though Chavez's immediate successors probably won't jettison his socialist domestic policy, those in position to take over don't appear to have the same hunger for regional leadership or the skill to take on such a role, say current and former U.S. officials and other analysts. That could make the relationship with Washington less rancorous, if not exactly warm. [Los Angeles Times]
Others suggest it's wishful thinking to expect a diplomatic thaw. Case in point: In his first press conference, Chavez's hand-picked interim successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, accused the U.S. of trying to capitalize on Chavez's illness to destabilize Venezuela, and expelled two American military attaches. He even went so far as to accuse the U.S. of somehow causing Chavez's illness. Maduro hopes to win the coming election to replace Chavez, and, if his recent "railing against the United States" is any indication, says Elise Labott at CNN, he's going to be unleashing plenty more anti-American rhetoric to shore up his base.
This tried-and-true method of using America as straw man worked for Chavez, which is why U.S. officials acknowledge that the campaign season may not be the best time to break new ground or expect tangible progress. Officials say they will continue to speak out in favor of a more productive relationship between the two countries, but the ball, officials say, is firmly in Venezuela's court...
While Venezuela's relationship with the United States revolved around Chavez, it is unlikely his death will dramatically affect ties in the near term. If, as expected, Maduro wins the presidency, the new boss will likely be the same as the old one. [CNN]
Still, "U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic" that Chavez's death "could improve relations between the two countries," says Jay Newton-Small at TIME, even if "they aren't holding their breath." The tense days of the looming presidential election campaign might not be conducive to an easing of the rhetoric. Venezuelan politics revolved around Chavez for 14 years, and now that he's gone, things are bound to change, including, possibly, the attitude of the country's relationship with the U.S. "He played an outsized role in that government," a State Department official told reporters Wednesday, "and therefore his absence can have outsized implications."