With Chávez's health in doubt, so is leadership of Latin American left

Is there another regional leader with the clout and charisma to pick up where the Venezuelan president left off?

Fernando Llano/AP
A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds up a painting of him during a symbolic inauguration rally for Chavez outside Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday.

Across Venezuela, Latin America, and even the globe, everyone is asking: when will Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez return to power, and if he doesn't, what's next?

The country's longtime leader was supposed to be inaugurated yesterday, but could not be sworn in because he remained in Cuba, where he is recovering from surgery. Instead, his allies rallied around the presidential palace to show support for the ailing head of state, who won a fourth term in October. Meanwhile, the opposition declared the postponement illegal (see our briefing on the constitutional debate).

Now supporters have gone home, and Mr. Chávez is still considered the president of Venezuela, according to a Supreme Court ruling that says he can take oath when he is well enough. Still in doubt, however, are Chávez's chances for recovery and what the recent health scare means for the "socialist revolution" that has been the hallmark of his administration.

For the past 14 years, Chávez has led a leftist faction across Latin America, and while his health and vacillations in oil prices and production have weakened his international clout in recent years, he remains the region's leftist figurehead.

If he is unable to return, who will take his place?

Many analysts say that it won’t be a Venezuelan leader – neither Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chávez said would be his preferred candidate if he were unable to lead the nation, nor opposition leader Henrique Capriles, fits the bill. The former lacks the charisma, the latter the desire. Ricardo Sucre, a political analyst in Caracas, says that to take Chávez's place, one needs charm, wealth, and the will to lead. No leader in Latin America ticks all those boxes, he says. 

“Chávez is Chávez,” he says. “Venezuela became a reference point for leftism in the world because there were the conditions to do so ... It’s not something that is easily transferable.”

The Argentine Chávez?

On the busy streets of Buenos Aires, supporters of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the nation’s fiery president, say that she could be poised to take up the leftist flag in Latin America if Chávez is unable to return to office.

Chávez regularly praises Ms. Kirchner's late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, who made a stand against the IMF and the neoliberal policies of the so-called "Washington consensus" when he came to power in 2003. Kirchner has pursued those left-wing model with nationalizations, extensive welfare programs, and a controversial law that seeks to end media monopolies.

Mr. Kirchner's 2010 death triggered a mass outpouring of grief and and propelled his widow to re-election in 2011. Her aggressive rhetoric intensified in recent months as she condemned an American judge's ruling that her government should pay holdout creditors from Argentina's 2002 default, calling it "legal colonialism." (For more on that story, see: New York judge's ruling sparks nationalist surge in Argentina.) Domestically, she has accused the judiciary of representing the interests of corporations.

"There's no better candidate for the position than Kirchner," says María Castex, a translator from Buenos Aires. "She shares a lot of Chávez's ideals and has that strong character. She's omnipresent in our lives." 

"It's possible that Kirchner could take on Chávez's role, but she would have to project herself more at a regional level," says Leo Cristiani, a student from Buenos Aires.

Indeed, there are checks to her power, including term limits on her presidency, which ends in 2015. Government officials have indicated she will look to remove that limit through constitutional reform, but that would require her to win two-thirds of Congress in October's legislative elections, an unlikely outcome.

"Chávez and [Néstor] Kirchner began the Pink Tide and [Chávez's] death would be another huge blow to the region," says Martín Alalu, a political analyst at the University of Buenos Aires. "Fernández [de Kirchner] has the populist discourse, but she hits her term limit in 2015."  

"Kirchnerism is trying to copy some of the formulas of chavismo, but it's being halted," says Colette Capriles, a political analyst at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, referring to recent social unrest and an ongoing battle with the courts over the media law.

Other choices 

Mr. Alalu says that Rafael Correa in Ecuador, perhaps the most charismatic of the current Latin American leaders, is the natural successor of Chávez. “He has Chávez's antagonistic, anti-American discourse, oil reserves, and a leadership style that promotes a plebiscitary democracy," he says, referring to the 2009 referendum in Venezuela to remove presidential term limits and the 2008 vote to reform Ecuador's constitution.

But his “oil wealth” does not compare to that of Venezuela, says Mr. Sucre. The only leader who might possibly have the economic might to lead the left is Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, he says, but, unlike her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, she has shown little interest in being a leftist figurehead,.

Chávez's most loyal allies are recipients of his oil wealth, and there are many internal differences among them. Ms. Capriles says the idea of solidarity between the left-leaning countries in the region, formalized during the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina, is a myth. "There's no ideological union," she says. "The other countries are simply beneficiaries of Chávez's financial support."

Subsequently, she says, the leaders of a post-Chávez Latin America will not be concerned about who replaces him as a figurehead, but how to maintain close relations.

Chávez, for example, bought up Argentine debt in 2005, helping the first President Kirchner pay off $10 billion to the IMF, and continued to lend. "Argentina will always be at Venezuela's side," says Rafael Follonier, an Argentine government official sent to Havana and believed to be close to Chávez's inner circle. "Its government's stability is important for ... South American integration." 

That might change in a post-Chávez climate.

“Venezuela acquired unexpected political significance thanks to the popular leadership of Hugo Chávez, who crossed Venezuelan borders” with the help of oil prices, says Julio Burdman, head of politics and international relations at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires. “But it’s a small country in other respects.” Without Chávez as protagonist, he says, the exterior relations of Venezuela could change. 

That is something that many Venezuelans agree with. "There's nobody like Chávez," says Kei Campbell, a lawyer from Caracas. "He has the talent of being able to move and convince the masses. [Vice President] Maduro doesn't have that, nor … anybody else."

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