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Hugo Chavez legacy: a wedge between US, Latin America (+video)

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, who died Tuesday, made it his mission to sway Latin American leaders away from the US and toward his brand of populist socialism. Chavez made strides, but his influence in the region had been waning.

By Staff writer / March 5, 2013

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez before the opening session of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 2009. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on Tuesday that Chavez had died.

Mariamma Kambon/Summit of the Americas/Pool/AP/File

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In December 1994, Miami and the Clinton administration hosted the first Summit of the Americas, an event that drew the leaders of every country from Canada to Chile but Cuba. It was perhaps the zenith of the quest to cast the Western Hemisphere in Washington’s image, with a vast, Arctic-to-Tierra-del-Fuego free-trade area among market economies that banished populism and ostracized Cuba as the lone vestige of a bygone socialism.

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Venezuela President Hugo Chavez spent his tenure trying to sway Latin American leaders away from the US.

Enter Hugo Chávez, a red-bereted, self-described Bolivarean revolutionary – after the George Washington of South America, Simón Bolívar – preaching a very different vision to a struggling but oil-rich Venezuela. Mr. Chávez’s model of socialist populism struck a chord that reverberated well beyond Venezuela – and that sounded the death knell of the thinking, more than a century old, that Latin America had no option but to follow Washington’s lead.

Chávez died Tuesday after a long illness that, in recent months, silenced the usually vituperative, blustery, even outrageous leader. He leaves a Latin America much changed from the one he encountered when he first took office as Venezuela's president in 1999.

The change is not so much because Latin America adopted the model Chávez espoused, but rather because Chávez made it his project to persuade others – in part by handing out vast amounts of his country's oil revenues – that alternatives to Washington’s economic and political vision were possible.

“I don’t think it can be overstated how he fundamentally changed relations not just between the US and Venezuela, but how he did the same with US-Latin America relations,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society in Washington. “Chávez put meat on the bones of the basic message he spread, which was that there is an alternative for development, [and] you don’t have to follow the example and dictates of the United States.”

News of Chávez’s death came the same day the Venezuelan government, increasingly agitated by the president’s worsening condition, accused “imperialist” enemies – specifically the United States – of having infected the president with cancer. The man Chavez designated to succeed him, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, claimed on national television that officials at the US Embassy in Caracas had been involved in conspiracies with Venezuelan military officials to undermine the government and had been expelled.

The US quickly rejected the allegations against US officials, saying such “fallacious” accusations would make improved relations between the two countries more difficult.

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