U.S. not starting from scratch with Venezuela
Venezuela's constitution mandates an election be held within 30 days to pick a successor to Hugo Chavez, but the implications of Chavez's death for Venezuela and the region will not be clear for some time.
Chavez was a polarizing figure, revered by his supporters and reviled by his critics. It is undeniable that he changed Venezuela, whatever one's views of his leadership. Many of the poor there and elsewhere considered him their champion and will mourn his passing.
But many in the country saw Chavez very differently. His critics felt his effort to change Venezuela's political culture significantly weakened the country's democratic institutions. What happens next in Venezuela will, therefore, be followed closely throughout the region and the world, as people wait to see if Chavez's political agenda will survive the man himself.
In his last public act, Chavez called on the country to support Vice President Nicolas Maduro if he, Chavez, were not able to continue to govern. Maduro will likely enjoy a significant advantage over any opposition candidate. Nevertheless, virtually all Venezuelans agree that Chavez will be a hard act to follow, whether Maduro is elected or not.
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That is because Chavez dominated Venezuelan politics as few politicians have in the last 100 years. He won re-election last October by a comfortable margin despite persistent high inflation, stagnant oil production, deteriorating infrastructure, periodic scarcities of basic food items and alarming levels of criminal violence.
The attraction of Chavez's message outside of Venezuela, however, faded somewhat in recent years in part due to the country's economic problems. Many in the hemisphere now find the Brazilian experience of recent years to be a more compelling story of economic success.
Chavez's first election in 1998 was one of the initial signs of the populist wave that would eventually sweep left-leaning leaders into office in much of South America. And his use of the country's oil wealth to support friends and build alliances gave him, for a time, real weight in the hemisphere.
Cuba's economy, for instance, has managed to stay afloat in recent years in no small measure because Venezuela supplied as much as 100,000 barrels of oil a day to the island at deeply discounted rates. Cuba was able to pay for much of the oil through barter arrangements for technical assistance, doctors and other kinds of advisors.
Many of the smaller economies of the Caribbean also benefited from Chavez's PetroCaribe program, which made highly concessionary financing for oil purchases available at a time when record-high world oil prices threatened to cripple their vulnerable, resource-poor economies. Even though most of Chavez's PetroCaribe clients had no intention of embracing what Chavez called "21st Century Socialism," they appreciated the help. Moreover, Chavez's provocative rejection of neoliberalism and his advocacy for the poor resonated within the marginalized sectors of their own populations.
Chavez was also, of course, a harsh and unrelenting critic of the United States. He made rolling back the influence of the United States in Latin America and around the world a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Relations with the United States are likely to remain difficult if Maduro succeeds Chavez, at least in the near term. Maduro's expulsion of two members of the U.S. embassy in Caracas on the day of Chavez's death made this clear.
This does not mean, however, that the two countries will have to rebuild the bilateral relationship from scratch when they are finally ready to put things back together. Venezuela and the U.S. continue to have a robust trade relationship. Despite his antipathy toward the U.S., Chavez never stopped selling us oil -- and we never stopped buying. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to visit the U.S. every year. Many American companies are still active in Venezuela, and baseball is a shared passion, with Venezuelan players prominent throughout the Major Leagues.
Furthermore, many in the hemisphere -- even if not Chavez's closest allies -- will tacitly support some sort of rapprochement.
Ultimately, the two sides will have plenty to work with when they are ready to sit down. But there will also be years of tension and acrimony to overcome.
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