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The Post-Chavez Era in Venezuela and Latin America

By Peter Hakim
Latin Pulse, December 14, 2012

Listen to Hakim's segment in Latin Pulse here.

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Una versión en español se encuentra aquí.

Uma tradução desse artigo em português pode ser acessado aqui.

By winning 20 out of 23 races in the December 16 gubernatorial elections in Venezuela, supporters of Hugo Chavez left no doubt that `Chavismo,’ the populist, anti-American leader‘s special brand of politics, will not necessarily end with his death or incapacitation. Sure, Venezuelan voters may have been merely expressing their sympathy for Chavez as he struggles to recover from his fourth cancer operation in the past 18 months. But such an overwhelming defeat is clearly not a favorable sign for those opposed to Chavez and Chavismo. The only good news for them was that the leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October’s president election, managed to squeak out a victory.  

For some years Chavez was a central, although mostly disruptive, figure in inter-American affairs. Recently, however, his influence has been increasingly confined to Venezuela. And even there, he has faced growing challenges from a smarter and more united opposition as well as from his own governance shortcomings, particularly on economic and public safety matters. His regional and international muscle shrank as the Venezuelan economy deteriorated, and his seemingly endless energy and vitriol faded with his illness. When the two major targets of his often abusive verbal assaults left office (George W. Bush in 2009 and Colombian president Álvaro Uribe in 2010), it became more and more difficult to keep the international spotlight on himself and Venezuela.

Still, Chavez remained the master of ceremonies in Venezuela, where he was the commanding political presence and the final authority on any and every issue. It was Chavez, personally, who held the Chavista movement together. Antagonism toward Chavez was also an important factor in unifying a fractious opposition. By overshadowing everyone else in Venezuelan public life, Chavez has made it hard to predict what comes next in the country’s politics, when he is finally off center stage.

If Chavez – because of illness or death—cannot continue as president, which now seems likely, the Venezuelan constitution requires that a new election be held within 30 days. Presuming the constitution holds sway (and most observers believe it will), the candidate of the opposition is almost certain to be Henrique Capriles, who was reelected governor of Venezuela’s second largest state of Miranda, by a small margin—one of only three opposition governors remaining in office. Although Chavez handily beat him by 11 points in this October’s presidential election, Capriles conducted a vigorous, intelligent campaign under difficult circumstances and is today widely viewed as the opposition’s strongest candidate—although the opposition unity is hardly guaranteed. The opposition was deflated and demoralized after the October defeat, and still faces the task of reuniting and reenergizing their movement.

Whether, in fact, Capriles or any other opposition figure can beat Chavez’s designated successor, foreign minister and vice president Nicolás Maduro, remains uncertain. Within the Chavista movement, Maduro himself may end up struggling for supremacy with other loyalists—for example, Diosdado Caballo, the current head of parliament, who has strong support in the army. Prior to the October vote for president, Capriles outpolled Maduro and other potential Chavista candidates. But results of the gubernatorial elections last week coupled with recent polling data suggest that Maduro will have the advantage—particularly if elections are held soon and Chavez comes out to campaign for him.

No one, however, can be sure who will lead Venezuela in a post-Chavez era, but whoever it is will face a catalogue of formidable challenges—including revitalizing a slowing and increasingly chaotic and inflationary economy, reversing the continuing decline in oil production (which accounts for nearly 90 percent of the country’s export revenue and one-half the national budget), bringing an unprecedented wave of crime and violence under control, and sustaining Chavez’s popular health and social welfare programs.
During the 14 years of Chavez’s centralized rule and zealous concentration of power, democratic institutions have sharply deteriorated in Venezuela. But rebuilding democracy and the rule of law is not likely to be an immediate priority of any Chavista candidate. It will be a central objective, however, if Capriles becomes president.

The greatest uncertainty is whether the country’s politics will remain bitterly polarized, as they have been for most of the Chavez period, or whether his opponents and supporters can begin to find areas of compromise and reconciliation. The polarization could, of course, get worse and perhaps lead to a period of political fragmentation and instability—or even to violent clashes.

Although Venezuela could face growing unrest and disturbance, Chavez’s death will not have much effect on the broad dynamics of regional affairs. Without Chavez’s unsettling behavior, Brazil’s already predominant role in South American may be modestly reinforced. Although he has a small part in the negotiations, Chavez's death is unlikely to affect the prospects of a peace settlement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas.

Change is more likely to occur on the economic front. Venezuela’s support for Cuba has been essential to keeping the island’s economy afloat. If it were to be halted, Cuba could face a humanitarian crisis. Venezuelan direct aid has also been important to several other countries, including Nicaragua and Bolivia. And it has been one of the few customers for Argentine bonds in recent years. Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s program to assist the energy poor countries of the Caribbean and Central America, has provided critical assistance during a difficult of period of high fuel prices. Its loss would be felt. But, it is not at all certain that Venezuela’s aid initiatives would be drastically cut, at least not in short order, by an opposition government which, after all, will want to sustain good relations in the region.

To be sure, Chavez has been a major irritant to the United States, but his actions, however troubling, have played only a very minor role in Washington's declining influence in the region. Far more responsible have been the dramatic changes that have taken place generally in Latin America, as it has become stronger economically, more independent politically, and more assertive internationally. The rise of Brazil has been particularly important in this regard. The Unites States has also lost sway because of its own economic and budgetary problems, its debilitating political polarization, and the distractions of two overseas wars. Chavez’s death will certainly not restore US influence in Latin America.

Peter Hakim is President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.