Hugo Chavez Dies: What’s Next for Venezuela and the Region?

After almost two years battling cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died yesterday, March 5.

In the wake of his death, the general consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. The Venezuelan leader’s legacy is divisive, with vehement supporters and detractors at home and abroad, a situation reflected in both English and Spanish coverage. (And, for a longer, relatively unusual pro-Chavez analysis in English here and here)

Chavez portrayed himself as a saviour of the poor and a tireless crusader against American hegemony in the region and internationally. At home, Chavez’s pro-poor policies have won him tremendous support from the working class (link in Spanish), and according to the World Bank, poverty rates have dropped in the country between 2003-2011, from 62.1% to 31.9% – an achievement, no matter what your politics. However, the success of all these programs is, of course, contested.

At the regional and international level, Chavez allied himself with other anti-US leaders from Bolivia’s Evo Morales to Iran’s Ahmadinejad as well as China and Russia. To this end, he funded development projects in a number of countries, as, as well as offering highly subsidized petroleum to the countries party to the Petrocaribe Oil Alliance and ALBA (the Alternativa Bolivariana de las Americas – the Venezuelan lead alternative to the FTAA). Countries like Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua have all benefited enormously from cheap Venezuelan oil.

What’s next?

In the short term, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro will lead the country until elections are called (this should happen within the next month, according to the constitution). Maduro was named by Chavez as his successor and will likely run in elections against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, defeated by Chavez in 2012. According to Michael Shifter, (of Inter-American Dialogue), Chavismo will likely survive Chavez in the short term. Maduro may benefit from the “compassion effect” and the fact that, “thanks to higher oil prices and increased social spending, most Venezuelans are better off than they were in the late 1990s – Chavez is popular, and will remain so after he dies.”

Over the long-term, any benefits Chavez brought to the country may die with him. According to Shifter Venezuela’s social programs have been poorly institutionalized and are largely patronage-driven, undermining possibilities for lasting change.

Of course, the continuation of oil subsidies to poor countries in the region will depend on the inclinations of the next government as well as the economic context, which is apparently quite precarious (although maybe not that bad), or at least beset by some of the problems facing many oil producing states.

As Shifter notes, politically sympathetic countries in the region have been more likely to look to Brazil’s progressive but pragmatic approach to domestic poverty reduction as well as regional leadership, than to Chavez’s bombastic attempts. But Venezuela is nevertheless an important regional player, and its future stability (or lack thereof) will have an important impact on the region. Will Chavez’s passing mark the end of oil subsidies and his fiery brand of socialism? Will Venezuela continue to be, at least a rhetorical counterweight to the influence of the US in region? Will Venezuelan support for other anti-American regimes such as Cuba and Bolivia evaporate?

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