Venezuelans will head to the polls April 14 to elect a successor to the late President Hugo Chávez. While Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked candidate, is favored to win, it’s not as clear who will inherit the populist’s mantle as the ideological leader of the Latin left.
With his strident anti-Americanism and insistence on Latin American unity, Chávez championed the poor and thwarted a U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas at the same time he pushed regional alliances and hemispheric trade blocks as a counterweight to what he perceived as too much U.S. influence in the region.
And there seems to be a desire among the Latin left to keep those efforts alive.
When Chávez died March 5, Argentine President Cristina Fernández, President José Mujica of Uruguay and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, for example, released a joint statement saying the best tribute to Chávez “would be to preserve his legacy, activism and commitment to the regional integration project.’’
But with the Venezuelan economy in rickety shape and rampant crime plaguing the country, keeping Chávez’s dream alive in Venezuela — let alone the rest of the continent — may prove daunting.
While those who jetted to Caracas to pay their respects included a who’s who of the Latin left — Cuba’s Raúl Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, among them — there’s no clear favorite as to who might fill Chávez’s role.
Interim President Maduro, who served as Chávez’s foreign minister, may try. He has well-established contacts around the region and is expected to try to keep up Venezuela’s role as oil benefactor if he wins.
But analysts say he won’t be able to cast nearly as long a shadow as Chávez whose charisma as well as generosity with Venezuela’s oil wealth helped cement his role in leftist Latin American politics and economics.
“I would think that Maduro would seek to maintain the leadership role based on his past relationships but the question is for how long?’’ said Diana Villiers Negroponte, a Latin American researcher at the Brookings Institution.
Going forward, she said, there will be increased pressure on Venezuela to sell its oil at market prices. While Negroponte expects a Maduro presidency would maintain its preferential oil arrangement with Cuba, she said other nations that benefitted from oil diplomacy “may get haircuts.”
In addition, analysts say, Chávez’s influence in the region also had been on the wane as the Venezuelan model, which benefitted the poor but was plagued with operating inefficiencies that resulted in high inflation, food shortages, a recent devaluation and a continuing exodus of the wealthy classes, isn’t really seen as much of an alternative.
“A number of Latin American countries didn’t share Chávez’s approach but took advantage of it’’ and its ability to send a message to the United States, said Kurt Weyland, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.
The high point of Chávez’s influence was perhaps 2005 to 2008, he said. “There hasn’t been forward momentum in his movement in the past three years.’’