Posted on Friday, 03.29.13
No clear successor to Chávez as leader of Latin American left
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Analysts say Ecuador's Correa may be the best positioned for the Chávez
"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,''
"I don't think there is a clear leader who would fill the void'' left by
Chávez, Weyland said.
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