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.’’
More attractive for some is the Brazilian model with its emphasis on more equity in the distribution of wealth but also fiscal discipline and the free market.
In paying tribute to Chávez in a New York Times editorial, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president who shared Chávez’s aspirations of improving the living standards of people across Latin America, said his friend was a “controversial, often polarizing figure, one who never fled from debate’’ and at times said more than was prudent.
But he added, “No remotely honest person, not even his fiercest opponent, can deny the level of camaraderie, of trust and even of love that Mr. Chávez felt for the poor of Venezuela and the cause of Latin American integration.’’
Chávez was the driving force behind creation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a 12-nation organization, and the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our America (ALBA), whose members include Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and a few Caribbean nations. Its goal is economic integration and mutual economic aid among members.
Chávez also hosted the meeting that led to the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States — a grouping whose members hope might become an alternative to the Organization of American States, which includes the United States and Canada.
But even within these organizations there is disagreement about goals.
“Mr. Chávez’s legacy in the realm of ideas will need further work if they are to become a reality in the messy world of politics, where ideas are debated and contested. A world without him will require other leaders to display the effort and force of will he did, so that his dreams will not be remembered only on paper,’’ said Lula da Silva in his op-ed piece.
Analysts say Ecuador’s Correa may be the best positioned for the Chávez role.
“Our commitment today more than ever is not to take a single step back from fulfilling your dreams, which are our shared dreams,” Correa said in a televised address after Chávez’s death.
Although Correa has been criticized for an authoritarian streak, he is charismatic and recently won reelection by a substantial margin. Ecuador also has oil wealth — albeit not nearly as much as Venezuela — and Correa’s popularity has risen as he has used that money to invest in education, roads and other infrastructure and cash subsidies for the poor.
“I think the one who has made a claim is Correa. That’s based on his easy victory in the polls last month,’’ said Negroponte. “However, Correa doesn’t have all that much oil.’’
While there are other Latin American leaders who share Chávez’s causes, most have limitations that make it unlikely they will become his ideological heir apparent, said Erick Langer, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies.
Evo Morales, for example, has domestic problems and isn’t particularly interested in playing on a larger stage, he said. While Lula da Silva relished his role as a global citizen, Rousseff has made it clear she prefers to concentrate on domestic issues.
Argentina’s Fernández, who was one of the first to arrive in Caracas to pay her respects but left before the funeral, may also have her hands full with domestic problems.
Ortega “has disqualified himself with corruption issues in Nicaragua,’’ said Langer.
“I don’t think there is a clear leader who would fill the void’’ left by Chávez, Weyland said.