Hugo Chávez died yesterday at the age of 58. William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said he was “saddened to learn of [Chávez’s] death,” adding: “As president of Venezuela for 14 years he has left a lasting impression on the country and more widely.”
Chávez had dominated Venezuelan—and, at times, Latin American—politics since the late 1990s. Inspired by his hero, the nineteenth-century Venezuelan politician Simón Bolívar, Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” promised popular democracy and a more egalitarian society. Funded by Venezuela’s ample petro-dollars, his social programmes did have some success in reducing inequality, winning him the loyalty of many voters. But his presidency also stoked the divisions in Venezuelan society and clamped down on political dissent, while he exerted a strong grip on the country’s institutions, enabling him to bypass the constitution. A vocal critic of the United States, especially under George W Bush, his alliances with such foreign leaders as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko did him no favours, and tried the patience of some of his admirers.
But he was most influential in Latin America, where he gave important support to the likes of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, and his death raises questions about the political future of Venezuela and the wider region. The country’s constitution states that an election must be held within 30 days, and it looks likely to pit Chávez’s vice president and anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential election. Maduro should benefit from Chávez’s endorsement but he doesn’t share his charisma or popular support. Chávez was so closely associated with his policies and style of government that it is difficult to see how there can be a straightforward transition of power. The question, fundamentally, is whether chavismo can survive without Chávez.
It will be especially interesting to see what the coming months bring for US-Venezuelan relations. Despite the measures each country has taken against the other—including the withdrawal of ambassadors—the US has continued to be Venezuela’s most important trading partner. According to a report in the Miami Herald, Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, telephoned Maduro in November, and he is said to have been receptive to the possibility of restoring full diplomatic relations. Yesterday, the signs were not promising—two US military officials were expelled from Venezuela yesterday for “planning to destabilize the country,” a claim dismissed by the US State Department—but Obama reaffirmed his interest “in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.” A Capriles victory would certainly bring closer ties to the US but a Maduro victory may well have the same result. Whatever happens will have great repercussions for the balance of power in the region.