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2013: In Latin America, a loss of leftist icon Hugo Chávez

Venezuela lost its leftist leader and the country lost regional influence as oil production continued to fall.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2013

Supporters of Venezuelan late President Hugo Chávez watched as his coffin arrived at the Military Academy, where his wake was held, in Caracas, March 6. Latin America is sorting out its post-Chávez future.

Jorge Silva/Reuters

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As 2013 draws to a close, Monitor foreign correspondents look back on the global stories that had the greatest impact on the regions they cover. These stories, and the deeper trends that they reflect, are certain to remain in the headlines into the new year. We bring you tales of military posturing, democratic backsliding, and the death of a strongman. Watch this space for more in 2014. And click on the list of stories on the left hand side of this article for more year in review pieces from around the world.

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Latin Americans either loved Hugo Chávez, or hated him – there wasn't much in between when it came to the Venezuelan president. But when Mr. Chávez's death was announced on March 5, 2013, after weeks of speculation about his health, the Americas were momentarily united in asking what could possibly come next for his economically-troubled Andean nation, and in the region for which Chávez had served 14 years as the figurehead for leftist politics.

Chávez burst onto the political scene in 1992 through a failed coup attempt and was elected to office in 1998. In the early 2000s he launched "Socialism for the 21st Century," using the country's vast oil wealth to solidify his cornerstone social programming, which made him a hero with the long-ignored poor but a resource-squandering villain in the eyes of the upper classes.

A unique political player with petrodollars to spend both at home and abroad, Chávez had the charisma to lead a divided nation beset by increasing crime and rising inflation.

With his death, the region's leftist movement lost its ideological and economic center of gravity. It is still unclear whether Chávez's handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, can take up the mantle. Elected in April by a razor-thin and hotly contested margin of less than two percentage points, Mr. Maduro has relied heavily on calling upon memories of Chávez. Analysts speculate that it's an attempt to obscure a lack of resources that his predecessor had in abundance, such as charisma, political instincts, and, perhaps most importantly, oil money. Annual oil output declined sharply under Chávez's rule and exports fell by nearly a half in a country that depends on oil for 95 percent of its exports.

Unlike other enduring political movements like Perónism in Argentina, Chávismo hasn't been institutionalized in the way many expected upon Chávez's death. The economy in Venezuela is falling into further disarray with chronic shortages of basic goods, a ballooning budget deficit, and inflation accelerating to 54 percent – the highest in a decade. Some analysts predict that if conditions don't improve, Venezuela could face violent uprisings.

Regionally, the iconic Petrocaribe alliance – in which Venezuela sends oil shipments to 17 allied nations in the Caribbean and Latin America on preferential terms – has already shown signs of wavering. Despite pledges by its government that the alliance will persist, Guatemala announced it was pulling out because of increased costs. Venezuela has quietly cut oil shipments to others and is rumored to be considering modified repayment terms. These moves would deeply affect small nations accustomed to propping up their economies with cheap Venezuelan oil.

Who could fill Chávez's shoes as a regional leader? Some point to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the person to watch. This year Ms. Rousseff showed she wasn't afraid to stand up to the US over allegations of National Security Agency spying, and she speaks to diverse leaders across the region. Thus far, however, she hasn't shown an interest in taking on the role.

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