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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.

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“Concentrating the new efforts at economic union and political unity on Latin America diminishes the power of the US in the region, and diminishes the relevance of [Washington-based] institutions like the OAS [Organization of American States],” Professor Tinker Salas says. New collective organizations such as Mercosur, UNASUR, and even ALBA, Chávez’s “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas,” sprang up. Chávez was "a central figure in that,” he says.

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But it’s also true that he reached the peak of his influence a few years ago, experts say – probably when George W. Bush was still president. Since then, Chávez’s model of political and economic development for Venezuela has lost much luster.

Moreover, despite his vision of regional unity, Chávez was a divisive figure in his own neighborhood, never overcoming testy relations with next-door neighbor Colombia, whose FARC guerrilla fighters he championed.

To illustrate how Chávez’s image had tarnished in recent years, some Latin American analysts cite the case of Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala. When Mr. Humala first ran for the job in 2006, he touted his kinship with Chávez – both leftist former army officers – at every turn. He presented himself as the anti-capitalist who would emulate the populism of Chávez and other Latin leftists. He lost that race, but ran again and won in 2011, this time eschewing any admiration for the Chávez model.

Since Humala’s election, Peru has enjoyed accelerated economic growth and has moved to join Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and others in combining growth with social improvements without resorting to Chávez’s populism or to his antidemocratic concentration of power.

“What the Latin America of the past few years demonstrates is that you don’t have to be a militant populist who is anti-American to accomplish social change and govern with a social conscience,” Farnsworth says.

With Chávez’s death, the question for Venezuela and Latin America becomes, “Will there be Chavismo without Chávez?” says Tinker Salas.

For Venezuela, the short-term answer appears to be yes. In elections for state governors in December, Chavista candidates – several of them leftist former military officers like Chávez – trounced the opposition.

Latin America, on the other hand, has already largely moved on from Chávez, though a few leftist populist states still depend on Chávez largess. Even so, strains of Chávez’s anti-imperialist, region-centric doctrine and his socialist rhetoric are heard in the region's new responses to global and economic challenges, some experts say.

Chávez sits with Fidel Castro and “the sainted Che Guevara” in touching “a chord in Latin America that is there,” says Charles Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Venezuela who is now director of the Institute of the Americas in San Diego.

But these days, Mr. Shapiro adds, a stronger chord than Chávez’s is being struck by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and other countries that are not just talking about poverty, but reducing it.

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