On March 5, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias, 58, passed away due to a persistent cancer that was diagnosed in mid-2011 and continued to affect him. Chavez was president for since 1999; the end of his 14-year reign brought new perspectives to a Latin American nation with 27 percent of its population under the poverty line.
Chavez will enter in the history of the hemisphere, not only as one of the longest serving presidents but also as the architect of what he called Bolivarian socialism, which used his nation’s oil dollars to bolster his belligerent attitude and confrontational actions and statements against the United States and other industrialized economies.
President Chavez led the efforts to bolster the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The first two of these was established in 2004 and the third in 2010. He even managed to have his country become a full member of MERCOSUR in late July 2012, the world’s fifth largest trading block established by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, which had originally encompassed only the southernmost countries of the continent.
Chavez was highly influential in the Paraguayan presidential election of April, 2008, when close associate Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, became president of Paraguay due to the tremendous financial assistance that came from Venezuela. In recognition of the political and financial help from Chavez, Lugo and his “Frente Guasu” political group declared three days of mourning following the Venezuelan president’s demise.
Lugo recognized the Venezuelan leader as “the father of democracy in the region, [Chavez] was the leader of integration, sovereignty of nations, democracy and dignity of nations.” He added that “Chavez recovered an important chapter of the Latin American People’s history.” Lugo was impeached and removed from office in mid-2012 in a process that was recognized as constitutional by the Organization of American States. Nonetheless, allies of Venezuela – Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay – pulled their ambassadors from Paraguay and declared that Lugo’s successor, President Federico Franco – is illegitimate.
According to Secretary General of Latin American Association of Integration (ALADI), Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez: “[Chavez’s death] is a great loss for an ongoing integration process” He added that no one can question, even his political enemies, the contribution of Chavez for being a leading motivator and dynamic figure leading the region through the path of integration.”
Alvarez, an Argentine leftist, praised Chavez’s strategy of shaping a “more autonomous, solid and just Latin American region.”
Although there is a tendency to artificially isolate Canada and the United States from the rest of the hemisphere, Latin American left wing presidents apparently do not realize that their vision is short- sighted and reminiscent of Cold War attitudes. It rejects multilateral initiatives that tend towards making the world a global village. A perfect example of their backward socialist mindset is the fact that even at the first CELAC Summit, in Caracas (2011), American capitalism was inevitably present in the form of all the IT equipment such as IBM computer desktops and large US branded monitors. No matter how hard they will try, the presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador, among others, will nonetheless continue to experience their countries’ dependence on global economic and financial trends in which Canada and the U.S. are fully integrated and play vital and decisive roles.
While granting that there are a few Latin American leaders, such as Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who are deeply rooted in Chavez’s Bolivarian ideology and have embraced his economic policies, this is the time when highly positive outcomes can happen in Venezuela and turn the country into an open market economy and establish closer ties with the United States, western economies and cease to support rogue nations such as Syria and Iran.
These are critical moments in Venezuela’s history as it is departing from Chavez’s legacy and preparing to hold general presidential elections within the next 30 days, as the national constitution requires.
Chavez’s current successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who was Venezuela’s special envoy to Paraguay during Lugo’s political impeachment process, when Maduro pressured Paraguay’s top military brass to embark on a coup d’etat and surround the national congress. At a same time, Venezuela mobilized six fighter jets to Bolivia in the area bordering Paraguay to assist Paraguay’s generals if they had decided to bring down the constitutional government and re-install the disgraced Lugo. That this would have been an effective invasion of Paraguay sovereignty from the Bolivian side was not lost on Paraguayans who fought a war with Bolivia in the 1930s over petroleum deposits.
Interestingly enough, Maduro - the same mastermind who attempted to orchestrate Lugo’s return to power last year, has again demonstrated his immaturity when his government accused two U.S. military attachés of spying, forcing them to leave within 24 hours. Maduro even went to far to say that the U.S. was somehow responsible for the cancer that killed Chavez.
Domestic affairs in Venezuela have gone astray. Chavez’s style of cult-like personalism, strategic nationalization of private business, press censorship and strong-arm tactics against political opponents, has resulted in making oil-producing Venezuela the region’s 12th lowest in economic growth in 2011. Nonetheless, Chavez pushed through various regional infrastructure projects at international meetings, such as rail service to connect Caracas with Buenos Aires and other major cities in between. Along the way, Chavez cemented closer and closer ties with Iran, Russia, and Cuba.
The ruling cadre left behind by Chavez has gradually absorbed Cuba’s communist ideological indoctrination. Venezuela provided subsidized fuel to Cuba, while Cuba’s rulers – brothers Fidel and Raul Castro – were Chavez’s closest allies. It was in Cuba, for example, that Chavez received surgery and chemotherapy for his cancer. Now, since Chavez is dead, Cuba may begin to strengthen and establish new alliances and partnerships with other Caribbean countries to produce a Plan B for the Castro regime, should Venezuelan eventually re-establish constructive relations with the U.S. after the upcoming elections under new leadership.
Since mid-2012, this has been another perfect opportunity for the Obama administration to embark on an intensive public diplomacy campaign in tandem with other elements of statecraft and develop a proactive strategy to support Venezuelan opposition leaders and former Chavista legislators who can lead the way towards a flourishing democracy at the heart of the Caribbean: a potential success story that would inspire change and reforms in Havana.
Spero columnist Peter M. Tase analyzes diplomacy and international trade.