However, the action against the United States is “not a sign of strength,” according to a senior Obama administration official, describing the move as an internal political ploy to stir nationalistic fervor.The official said Venezuela‘s vice president, Nicolas Maduro (abovem left), “is not charismatic” and is trying to sustain the Chávez legacy and win an election by advancing “conspiracy theories.”
“Chávez’s death is a game changer in Venezuela and will inevitably imply a reorganization of the political order,” said IHS Latin America analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos. “It creates a power vacuum that will be hard to fill and a political crisis could take place should Maduro fail to guarantee continuity for the chavismo movement.”
Chávez’s passing could provide an opening for the democratic opposition, analysts suggest.
“In regimes that are so person-based, the moment that the person on which everything hangs is removed, the entire foundation becomes very weak because there was nothing else supporting this other than this figure,” Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College, told the New York Times:
Chávez’s death could provide an opportunity for the political opposition, which was never able to defeat him in a head-to-head contest. Mr. Capriles [right] lost to Mr. Chávez by 11 percentage points in October. But he has twice beaten top Chávez lieutenants in running for governor of his state, Miranda, which includes part of Caracas.
And Mr. Maduro is far from having Mr. Chávez’s visceral connection to the masses of Venezuela’s poor. Even so, most analysts believe that Mr. Maduro will have an advantage, and that he will receive a surge of support if the vote occurs soon.
Some Latin America analysts expect a period of upheaval in Venezuela will complicate U.S. efforts to re-establish cordial relations.
“You’re going to have forces within ‘Chavismo’ vying for power and for the spot of Hugo Chávez,” said Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Is it going to get better?” he asked, referring to U.S. ties. “I’d say probably not.”
The authoritarian populist “leaves behind a country that’s very, very polarized, very divided. There’s tremendous mistrust,” says a prominent observer.
“A lot of people had a lot of hopes and expectations for him…He was somebody who put his finger on the legitimate grievances, the social injustice and social inequality in Venezuela,” according to Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue:
But in the end, he couldn’t solve the problems, because he concentrated power in his own hands. There was only one person who made decisions for 14 years, and that was Hugo Chávez. And that doesn’t work in this day in age. And so it’s a country that has high rates of inflation, tremendous crime, scarcity of goods, fiscal deficit. It’s not in good shape, decaying infrastructure. So whoever takes over, whatever happens, it’s going to be very, very difficult.
Chávez was “a pioneer and one of the most adroit practitioners” of competitive authoritarianism, says a leading analyst.
“These are regimes where leaders gain power through democratic elections and then change the constitution and other laws to weaken checks and balances on the executive, thus ensuring the regime’s continuity and its almost total autonomy while still retaining a patina of democratic legitimacy,” writes Moises Naím (left}, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy and a former Venezuelan minister of trade and industry:
Chávez’s most enduring and positive legacy is his shattering of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence with poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. He was not the first political leader who placed the poor at the center of the national conversation. Nor was he the first to use a spike in oil revenue to help the poor. But none of his predecessors did it so aggressively and with such a passionate sense of urgency as Chávez did.
On the other hand, Chávez “did not leave the nation a stronger democracy or a more prosperous economy,” notes Naím:
Chávez and his supporters claim that during his tenure 15 national elections and referenda took place and that his social programs promoted participation and “direct” or “radical democracy.” Yet, as Scott Mainwaring, a respected U.S. academic has noted, democracy requires “free and fair elections for the executive and legislature, nearly universal adult enfranchisement in the contemporary period, the protection of political rights and civil liberties, and civilian control of the military. The Chávez regime falls far short on the first and third of these defining characteristics of democracy. The electoral playing field is highly skewed, and respect for opposition rights has eroded seriously. The military is much more politicized and more involved in politics than it was before Chávez.”
Chávez’s death will not change regional geo-politics, says a leading analyst, except for the power and influence of the ALBA Bolivarian Alliance.
“Ecuador’s Correa looks like he could take over, but he lacks the bombast that Chávez had….ALBA will remain, but it will be much less flamboyant than when Chávez was at the controls,” said Chris Sabatini, the senior policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas: Chávez leaves a mixed legacy in his country and throughout the world. While experts seem almost universally to agree that the Chavistas will consolidate their power in the short term, what happens to Chavismo and Venezuela in the long term remains unknown.
“Venezuela without Chávez is almost unthinkable. The country’s situation post-Chávez is unpredictable,” said Sabatini, a former NED Latin America program officer. Chávez’s designated heir Maduro is known to be close to Cuba but he is not consistent in his radicalism, said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College.
“On the one hand, he has been behind some of the most radical, crazy foreign policy decisions of the Chávez administration. Support for Libya, you name it, all the radical decisions, he has been behind them,” Corrales said. “But he also has been behind some of the most pragmatic and conciliatory decisions, including the turnaround in relations with Colombia.”
Chávez’s political strength was largely fueled by his ability to personally connect with throngs of dedicated followers — dubbed “Chavistas” for their devotion to the president.
Polls have indicated that several possible successors from within the party’s ranks haven’t generated the same kind of enthusiasm among Chávez’s supporters. A February 2012 poll by the Datanalisis firm showed Maduro with 9.8% support among militant members of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, called for free and fair elections to replace Chávez.
Other observers highlighted Chávez’s ambiguous legacy.
“Within his administration he gave opportunities to people who would never have had them otherwise,” said political analyst Carlos Romero:
But his methods were roundly condemned by sectors of society that found themselves out of favour.
“There’s never been as big a division of the classes as there is now,” said Mr Romero.
Maduro’s personal loyalty and pro-Cuban sympathies made him the lead contender to succeed Chávez, observers said.
“Maduro combines two characteristics that influenced Chávez in his decision to designate him as successor: first, his loyalty to the party leadership, and second, his positions in favor of popular measures,” such as social programs for the poor, said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela’s University of Oriente:
After Chávez was elected president in 1998, Maduro was selected to join a special assembly to draft a new constitution. He was later elected to the National Assembly and then became president of the legislature…..Maduro was named foreign minister in 2006 and oversaw international efforts such as consolidating the regional diplomatic blocs ALBA and Unasur, strengthening relations with countries such as Russia, Iran and China, and overseeing a rapprochement with U.S.-allied Colombia.
The former bus driver and union activist “is perceived by Chávez as a negotiator with diplomatic skills who could potentially gather the support of the different factions and keep it united in the difficult months ahead,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
“Nevertheless, he is not necessarily perceived as such within all the top ranks of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the armed forces,” Moya-Ocampos added.
Some analysts believe change will come, but not immediately.
“Chávez has played an outsized role in the hemisphere,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas think tank. “So his passing will change hemisphere politics. This is an ending of an era or the beginning of a new one.”
But Chávez’s political intolerance and alliances with authoritarian regimes is not the only unsavory aspect of Chávez’s legacy, say analysts.
“Another ugly facet of Chávez’s tenure is that under his watch Venezuela became one of the world’s most murderous countries,” says Naím, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of the forthcoming book The End of Power, and the former editor of Foreign Policy:
Kabul or Baghdad is safer than Caracas, where homicides and kidnappings have become part of daily life. The country is also considered by international law enforcement agencies as a haven for counterfeiters, money launderers, and traffickers in persons, weapons, and, of course, drugs. According to the United Nations, Venezuela has become the main supplier of drugs to Europe. The U.S. Treasury has named eight high-ranking members of the Chávez government, including the former head of intelligence and the minister of defense, as drug kingpins.
Through it all Chávez was uncharacteristically silent and passive. His complacency as he watched his nation fall into a vortex of murder and criminality will be one of the most ugly and unforgivable aspects of his years in power.