Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Latin America Without Chávez

BOGOTÁ – Venezuela is poised to vote on a new president to replace the recently deceased Hugo Chávez. In the 14 years of his administration, Chávez was one of the major leaders in promoting changes in relations among Latin American countries and between them and the United States. So, what will the post-Chávez era in Venezuela mean for diplomacy within the hemisphere?

A significant group of Latin American countries with leftist governments have created new mechanisms for integration among themselves, as well as more autonomous relations with the US. Traditional bodies such as the Organization of American States and the Andean Community of Nations – in which US influence is a defining feature – have weakened, making way for Chávez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

Chávez transformed Venezuela according to a program that he called “twenty-first century socialism.” With his populist style, demagogic language, and authoritarian behavior, he replaced the country’s former elite, demolished traditional power structures, and sharply increased spending on anti-poverty programs and social inclusion.

Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” needed external support, and, to assure it, he implemented a high-profile foreign policy, sustained by the country’s oil wealth. Above all, the US was to be considered an imperialist threat and treated as such. This orientation led directly to closer ties with anti-American regimes around the world (including Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, and China), as well as cultivation of ideological allies within the region, including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

Chávez’s successor may have little choice but to maintain Venezuela’s role in Latin American and global affairs. Whoever becomes president – whether Nicolás Maduro, the designated Chávista heir, or Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate – will be heard in the international community.

Indeed, Chávez was not the first Venezuelan head of state to use oil as an instrument of active foreign policy and personal visibility; one could cite Carlos Andrés Pérez, for example, in pre-Chávista Venezuela. And if, as predicted, Maduro wins the election, he will assume office after six years by Chávez’s side as Foreign Minister – and determined to follow in his mentor’s footsteps.

Maduro would, for example, maintain Venezuela’s support and participation in the negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas; but so would Capriles, because doing so serves Venezuela’s national interest well. In other areas, diplomacy would be quieter and less ideological with Capriles as president, but it would be no less ambitious.

At the same time, other factors may well oblige Venezuela’s next president to alter the country’s foreign policy in some ways. Maduro may be the anointed successor, but he is not Chávez. Even if he turns out to be an outstanding student, he lacks his mentor’s oratorical skill and charisma; at the very least, he has yet to demonstrate a similar talent for politics.

Indeed, regardless of whether Maduro or Capriles wins, the new president will have to devote all, or nearly all, of his attention during his first months (if not years) in office to consolidating his power. That will require focusing on serious domestic problems: an economy afflicted by a fiscal crisis, a historically weak currency, high unemployment, and galloping inflation; rampant street crime; and dangerous levels of political and social polarization. Venezuela’s next president will have neither the time nor the resources to make foreign policy a priority.

In addition, most of Latin America is no longer receptive to radical foreign policies. Even progressive governments feel more comfortable today with pragmatic alternatives and less ideological agendas. Brazil’s cautious tone has become more attractive than fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric. While the recent redefinition of relations with the US is widely welcome in the region, hardly anyone is willing to risk a confrontation.

For example, Ecuador, under a Chávez-allied government led by President Rafael Correa, has not adopted Venezuela’s openly confrontational model of relations with the US. And, even in the “anti-Yanqui” heartland, with Chávez gone, there are credible rumors of mutual interest in improved US-Venezuela relations.

In sum, foreign-policy continuity seems to be the most likely outcome – both for Venezuela and for the region – especially if Maduro wins. But, even if he does, as seems likely, Chávismo without Chávez implies a more subdued role for Venezuela in Latin America and the world – and perhaps a thaw in relations with the comandante’s imperialist bogeyman.

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