A changed Venezuela after Chávez?

A survey of opinions about what Hugo Chávez's passing means for Venezuela, and the region.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
A Caracas resident puts up the national flag next to a poster of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, in Caracas, Thursday. Venezuelans flocked to pay tribute to Chávez as he lied in state at the Military Academy two days after his passing.

As Venezuela mourns the passing of President Hugo Chávez and foreign dignitaries gather to pay their respects, a big question for a post-Chávez Venezuela remains answered: How will the country's role in the world change?

Earlier today, Mr. Chávez lay in state at the military academy where he began his career, drawing hundreds of thousands of mourners – including the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay – reports the Associated Press.

And his funeral, scheduled for tomorrow, will be attended by both friends and foes of the firebrand leader. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close ally of Chávez's, left Tehran today for Venezuela, reports AP. And the Los Angeles Times adds that Washington also plans to send a delegation – despite Chávez's tempestuous relationship with the US.

In fact, it is not surprising that so many dignitaries will attend, since Chávez had a profound effect both on his country and his region – though opinions remain sharply divided on whether that effect was good or bad.  Either way, his attention to Venezuela's poor reshaped the political scene in both Venezuela and Latin America, the Monitor reports.

“The poor remember that no Venezuelan government ever cared for them or nurtured them or provided them with resources, and although Chávez is a lot of ‘blah blah blah,’ he also is a guy who has come through for [the poor],” [Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs,] says. ...

Many of the once disenfranchised found new political power during Chávez’s leadership, which the president’s passing will not take away, no matter who holds power in the future. Opposition candidates in the primary in the October 2012 presidential race all promised to continue Chávez's emphasis on social inclusion – underscoring the fact that such a stance is considered essential to winning a race in Venezuela, or anywhere else in Latin America, today.

But Chávez didn't just provide guidance to Latin America's leftist leaders. He also provided some with direct financial support – support that blogger Anya Landau French warns may not be so generous under future Venezuelan governments. That could have a huge impact on beneficiaries like Cuba, she writes.

Not unsurprisingly, many in and out of Cuba now wonder if the loss of Chávez is the death knell of the Castros’ Revolution, or, perhaps could it inject urgent momentum into Raul Castro’s reform agenda, just in the nick of time? In some ways, the loss of Hugo Chávez, on its face so devastating for Cuba, might actually be a good thing for the island. With Nicolas Maduro a favorite to win the special presidential election a month from now, Cuba will likely retain significant influence. But Maduro is no Chávez. He’ll have to focus on building up his own political capital, without the benefit of Chávez’s charisma. While he surely won’t cut Cuba off, to maintain power he will almost certainly need to respond to increasing economic pressures at home with more pragmatic and domestically focused economic policies. And that likelihood, as well as the possibility that the Venezuelan opposition could win back power either now or in the medium term, should drive Cuban leaders to speed up and bravely deepen their tenuous economic reforms on the island.

Regardless, says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, Chávez "made Venezuela a much more independent country, and made South America more independent of the US than Europe is today.”

In the West, and the US in particular, there is hope that Venezuela's post-Chávez government will soothe the country's often contentious international relations – though at least in the US, the Monitor reports, "no one expects tensions to evaporate from the relationship overnight."

“Chávez conditioned much of Venezuela to think negatively of the US,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society in Washington. Many Venezuelans won’t forget quickly Chávez’s claims, especially early in his rule, that the Central Intelligence Agency was trying to assassinate him or that the US was behind a 2002 military coup that briefly forced him from office.

“Healing is going to take time,” he says, “and I’m not convinced that whoever takes over after Chávez will be that interested in healing.”

Chávez's political heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, showed that immediate changes were not coming on Wednesday, when he accused the US of being behind the late president's death and promised to investigate further. Mr. Maduro is set to run in upcoming elections to succeed Chávez, and is expected to rely heavily on anti-US rhetoric to rally support.

The US isn't alone in hoping for more consistent, positive relations with post-Chávez Caracas. Spain, as Europe's main liaison with Latin America, has had a hot-and-cold relationship with former colony Venezuela, the Monitor reported yesterday. Although Spanish Foreign Minister Jose García Margallo described the ties between the two countries as "solid relations," he conceded that the Venezuelan president was an obstacle.

Referring to pending free trade negotiations between the EU and the South American Mercosur trade block, Margallo said Chávez had enormous influence. “Honestly, I think that a Venezuela with the parameters Chávez defended would have made negotiations impossible," he said.

“I don’t know what is going to happen, but it’s very important to us,” he added.

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