Hugo Chávez was a perpetual thorn in the side of the United States, sounding a constant drumbeat of anti-U.S. rhetoric and urging his Latin American compatriots to forge an independent, Washington-less path. And he drove home his points by force of personality and generosity with Venezuela’s oil wealth.
He formed and was the driving force behind regional alliances, was an ideological wellspring for the Latin American left, and exchanged regional influence for oil subsidies, favorable financing and outright donations.
One of the programs that especially endeared him to his neighbors was Petrocaribe, which sent about 10 percent of Venezuelan’s crude oil production to 17 regional countries on very favorable terms and allowed payment in goods or services rather than cash.
Now with his passing, the key questions are whether Venezuela will continue its regional largess and its ideological leadership. And some wonder whether the death of the region’s provocateur-in-chief would improve U.S.-Latin American relations.
Analysts said they expect if Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who Chávez anointed as his successor, wins upcoming elections, the Petrocaribe program will remain in place — as long as Venezuela’s own economic problems don’t become insurmountable and the price of oil remains fairly stable.
“I think it’s likely to continue and certainly continue in the case of Cuba,’’ said Cynthia Arnson, director of Latin American programs at the Wilson Center. Maduro visited Cuba frequently during Chávez’s lengthy treatment for cancer and is close to the Cubans.
“There’s a real ideological component’’ to Venezuela’s oil subsidies, she said, and that will make it “very difficult to drop them.’’
Member nations pay only 5 to 50 percent upfront for the oil. After a grace period of one to two years, they pay the balance over terms of 17 to 25 years, at a 1 percent interest rate.
An end to such savings could spell disaster for any number of fragile Caribbean and Central American nations, which have used the money to fund everything from new roads and airport expansions, to social programs involving free food baskets for the poor.
In Haiti, for example, the savings from the Petrocaribe program financed 15 percent of Haiti’s meager $3 billion annual budget and account for 22 percent of the road and infrastructure projects, said Kesner Pharel, a leading Haitian economist.
“Chávez was the only guy giving money to Haiti without asking questions, and Venezuela is the only country giving credit to Haiti,” said Pharel. Without that help, he said, Haiti “will be in trouble.”
Of the estimated $2.6 billion Nicaragua received over the past six years, at least some went directly to President Daniel Ortega and his ruling party, making him a very wealthy.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit , whose tiny Caribbean island of Dominica is one of the few English-speaking members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) that Chávez founded with Cuba, said he expected the current relationship to continue.
“I do not expect this friendship to deteriorate or agreement on social and economic initiatives reneged upon; that was simply not the nature or spirit of the relationship that existed between our countries,” Skerrit said.
But some analysts question whether Petrocaribe is sustainable.
“Somewhere along the line whether it’s Maduro for awhile or Henrique Capriles [who lost to Chávez in the October presidential election] later, reality must set in,’’ said Anthony Bryan, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Venezuela is currently giving away one-third of its oil production at below market prices: this includes loans-for-oil deals with China, and heavy subsidies in the domestic market,” he said.
With soaring inflation, a recent devaluation, high import bills, over-dependence on oil and shortages of everything from meat to toilet paper, the Venezuelan economy is in a downward spiral and the next president may be forced to concentrate more on domestic issues.
But for many Latin Americans, whether they agreed with the Venezuelan model or not, Chávez’s legacy will be as a bulwark against U.S. economic and political dominance in the region.
“He was the great leader of the left in Latin America and advocated for a Latin American — and Caribbean — way of doing things as opposed to a U.S. way of doing things,” said Erick Langer, director of the Center for Latin Studies at Georgetown University.
In addition to being the guiding force behind ALBA, Venezuela was a founding member of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR. Chávez also hosted the meeting that forged the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, an organization that excluded the United States and Canada. Chávez hoped it would one day replace the Organization of American States.
But the apex of such activism and anti-U.S. campaigning came during the second term of President George W. Bush, said Kurt Weyland, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched populism in Latin America.
Chávez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric reached a crescendo during a Sept. 20, 2006 address to the United Nations General Assembly. Speaking the day after Bush had addressed the assembly, Chávez said, “The devil came here yesterday, and it still smells of sulfur…”
U.S. officials talked Wednesday of a desire to have an improved relationship with Venezuela.
In the past 14 years, the Venezuelan government “really did revolve around one man. So while I hesitate to say that a change in an individual or the passing of an individual completely changes the relationship…he played an outsized role in that government, and therefore his absence can have an outsized implication, if you will,” a senior State Department official said.
While Chávez’s death represents a “terrible loss’’ for sectors of the Bolivarian left, said Arnson, the notion that he was leading a strong movement throughout Latin America “is several years out of date.’’
“Since then not only has the U.S. administration changed but so has the world,’’ said Weyland. He predicts a lowering of tensions in the region.
Analysts said there doesn’t appear to be a clear ideological heir apparent to Chávez and his movement in Latin America. And that may cause the left-leaning coalition forged by Chávez to begin to unravel, said Langer.
But this week Chávez’s closest ideological allies reacted with an outpouring of grief and tributes.
Cuba declared two days of national mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half-staff. There were three days of mourning mandated in Argentina and Haiti, and Dominica also declared a state of mourning.
“Chávez will continue to be an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chávez’s closest allies, in a televised speech.
And in Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, wife of Ortega and his spokesperson, said simply, “Chávez is one of the dead who never dies.’’