The photos illustrating the biggest news in Latin America this weekend could not have differed more. One was of a vigorous and victorious Rafael Correa in Ecuador, winning a third term in office Sunday; the other was of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s ailing president, smiling but, weeks after surgery for cancer, still lying in a hospital bed.
As Latin America moves into 2013, with Mr. Chávez’s full recovery still an unknown, many have questioned who will take over the leftist helm in the region if Chávez indeed must step down. And while not nearly as endowed with natural resources as Venezuela’s Chávez, Mr. Correa’s name is always on the shortlist. His clear, third-term victory Sunday positions him even more for the job.
But, as if an indirect message to Correa, Chávez might not be ready for a handover: Just as Correa was enjoying the global spotlight, Chávez took it back. In a surprise move, he returned in the middle of the night back to Venezuela from Cuba where he’s been convalescing, unseen and unheard from for weeks.
“We have arrived back in the Venezuelan fatherland. Thanks, my God! Thanks, my beloved people! Here we will continue the treatment," Chávez said on his Twitter account.
Correa the 'next Chávez?'
Correa won nearly 60 percent of the vote on Sunday, avoiding a runoff and making clear that no Ecuadorean leader can compete with the charismatic, former economist who was trained in the United States but has maintained a cold distance with the nation of his alma mater.
But he’s also emerging as a can't-beat leader of Latin America’s left, with a flair for the rhetoric that has resonated across the world's most unequal region. His win Sunday, he said in a victory speech, will deepen the "citizens' revolution,” a reference to the empowerment that left-leaning leaders have sought for the region’s poor, much of it via social programs funded by natural resources. “In this revolution the citizens are in charge, not capital," he said.
In a recent story by The Christian Science Monitor questioning who was poised to lead the left if Chávez steps down, Martín Alalu, a political analyst at the University of Buenos Aires, said he believed Correa was Chávez’s natural successor.
“He has Chávez's antagonistic, anti-American discourse, oil reserves, and a leadership style that promotes a plebiscitary democracy," Mr. Alalu told the Monitor's reporter in Buenos Aires, referring to the 2008 vote to reform Ecuador's Constitution.
And that regional leadership position is something that many agree Correa seeks. "Correa aspires to be that next mythical figure [of the left]," said Colette Capriles, a political analyst at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, in January.
But it might not be an attainable goal for now, and not just because of more limited resources. As long as Chávez is alive and in power, few if any can or would usurp his long-forged role as Latin America’s leftist voice.
On Sunday, just before dawn, euphoria spread across Caracas. Reuters reports that fireworks were set off and that government ministers celebrated on live television. “He’s back, he’s back,” one said of Chávez's return.
And Chávez joined in to celebrate. "I remain attached to Christ and trusting in my nurses and doctors," Chávez tweeted. "Onwards to victory forever! We will live and we will conquer!"