Hugo Chavez, the charismatic Venezuelan president, succumbed to his two-year bout with cancer on Tuesday, pushing the Latin American country into a new state of limbo. As the whole world watches, Venezuela now begins its inevitable transition to a post-Chavez world.
It’s a watershed moment, but everyone saw it coming. Chavez’s health had deteriorated quickly in the past few months. When he first announced his cancer had returned in November, nobody was sure how bad it was, but over time it became clear that his condition was serious. The 58-year-old underwent a number of medical procedures in Havana with little visible progress, and rumors that his cancer might be terminal became more and more prevalent.
Venezuelan officials remained characteristically quiet throughout the saga. They released a few photos in February that proved he was still alive, but they weren’t exactly images that inspired optimism. Chavez looked like he had trouble regulating his own bowels, let alone leading an influential country. Officials never discussed what kind of cancer he was facing (rumored to be bone metastasis related to pelvic cancer), but they eventually admitted he was dealing with a severe respiratory infection. Provocatively, they said Chavez was “fighting for his life.”
The fact that state officials were even discussing his illness with such gravity was an indication of how serious his sickness was. Latin American presidents aren’t exactly known for being forthright about their medical conditions [see Fidel Castro], so when someone as celebrated as Chavez was discussed in terms of a finite mortality, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines.
Now that Hugo Chavez is dead, the lines themselves need to be redrawn. A number of political complications now have to be faced. According to the Venezuelan constitution, if a president leaves office within the first four years of his term, an election must be held within 30 days. Although this amendment was temporarily suspended to allow Chavez time to recover, Venezuela now has to brace itself for a new election, marking the first time in years the enigmatic leader is absent from the ballot. At this point, anything can happen.
Chavez’s former main challenger, conservative Henrique Capriles, has been extremely vocal in his opposition to the current Venezuelan government. There is hope among his coalition of antisocialist parties that Chavez’s death will open the door to economic liberalization (i.e., free-market activity), and they point to how tight the last election was as an indication that socialist policies are declining in popularity. The Venezuelan socialist party was careful to appear unified as Chavez’s health has declined, but there have been noticeable rumblings suggesting possible divides. Chavez himself declared before his death that if he was unable to finish out his term, the nation should lend their support to his vice president, Nicolas Maduro. Whether or not the country will do so remains to be seen.
To make matters even more complicated, the fallout from the political turmoil stretches across all of Latin America. Since Fidel Castro’s slow descent into state-sponsored retirement, the mantle of the United States’s loudest critic in the region had largely fallen on Chavez. Will anyone, including Bolivian president Evo Morales, be able to fill his shoes?
Equally important in the region will be the economies of neighboring countries. Venezuela lends economic support to a number of socialist nations in Latin America. If conservative opposition parties successfully gain power, these policies could be subject to change.
The best example of this can be found in Cuba. In a lot of ways, the isolated socialist nation exists as it does thanks to Venezuela. Up until 1992, the Cuban economy relied mostly on financial backing from the Soviet Union, but after the latter fragmented, the Cuban economy crumbled. According to some accounts, the poor were reduced to eating cats. For obvious reasons, Cubans haven’t forgotten this.
Venezuela came to Cuba’s rescue after Chavez was first elected in 1998. They stepped in as Cuba's number-one trading partner and gave the country generous oil subsidies that were crucial for its recovery. Cuba is currently undergoing a number of economic reforms aimed at making the country less reliant on any one country, but if Venezuelan support were to dry up tomorrow, Cuba would be crippled.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a dissident Cuban economist, says that severing Cuban-Venezuelan ties could be worse than the breakup of the Soviet Union. “The difference is that if aid were to end now, the consequences would be much worse since Cuba’s infrastructure is in much worse shape now that it was back then.”
It’s hard to say what’s going to happen next. One way or another, changes are coming. Chavez was a polarizing leader, and to generalize his effect on the region would be an oversimplification. Regardless of what is said about Chavez’s administration, he had at least one policy that might be worth copying—suck it Exxon Mobil.
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