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.
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“An assertion that the United States was somehow involved in causing President Chávez’s illness is absurd, and we definitively reject it,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, in a statement. “We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government.”Skip to next paragraph
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During his years at the helm of Venezuela, Chávez made the pursuit of alternatives to Washington’s vision possible in two key ways, argues Mr. Farnsworth.
First, “he put his money where his mouth was,” he says, noting that Chávez used Venezuela's oil largess to rescue the communist regime of his mentor, Fidel Castro, and to allow other small Latin American countries to discount Washington and its wishes. Chávez, Farnsworth says, “made the fashionable feasible.”
Latin leftists certainly predated Chávez, but the economic limitations of their policies eventually clipped their wings: Mr. Castro is the poster boy for that retrenchment from regional dreams. But Chávez, sitting atop what are now considered to be the world’s largest oil reserves, used oil revenues in the service of his vision – even as the Venezuelan economy and the nation's living conditions suffered.
Second, Farnsworth says, Chavez’s “outrageousness” – taking the United Nations stage to label President George W. Bush “the devil,” or striking up a strategic partnership with Iran – gave other Latin countries the “political cover” to do things that were “not nearly as outrageous” but that nevertheless charted new, non-US-centric directions. Examples include developing strong trade ties with countries other than the US – Japan or China, for example – and opposing Washington on the war in Iraq.
Venezuela’s oil sales to China have soared, and Chávez signed a $40 billion loan agreement with Beijing that cements China’s access to Venezuelan oil. More worrying still to Washington was how Chávez offered Iran a portal into the hemisphere – and the opening that could provide to a Tehran already embroiled in a covert war with the US.
Chávez's ties with other anti-Western leaders who balked at dominance by the world's big powers – Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, even Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi – certainly rubbed Washington the wrong way. But what set Chávez apart was his determination to undermine US influence throughout Latin America and to enlist others to create a united front to that end.
“The rise of Hugo Chávez recast the search for regional integration,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American studies and a Venezuela specialist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. With Chávez rocking the boat, the Miami Summit of the Americas' vision of a hemispheric free-trade area faltered, and regional attempts at unity, with no US presence, arose.