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The late Hugo Chavez with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. (Photo: Government of Venezuela)
Monday, April 8, 2013

The New Chavez

With Chavez dead, who will lead Latin America’s fascist left? 


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died recently from cancer, significantly changed the Latin American political landscape during his presidency.  After his 1999 inauguration he spent about three years consolidating political power at home by eliminating Congress and naming unconditional collaborators to do his bidding. In 2002 and 2003 he took political control of the state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela. He dismissed 22,000 professional managers and technicians who had kept the company running professionally. By 2003 Chavez’s transformation of Venezuelan democracy into an authoritarian state had been essentially completed. In doing it he exhibited great strategic skills, had the support of the armed forces and received excellent advice from the Cuban government. His main weapon was oil money. During his 14 years in office he received about $1.4 trillion in total national income and used much of it to buy political loyalties at home and abroad.  

He started to intervene in Latin American politics. He financed the campaigns of Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Humala in Peru, Lopez Obrador in Mexico, Ortega in Nicaragua, Lugo in Paraguay,  Funes in El Salvador and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina. Due to his financial support most of these candidates won the presidency, although Funes and Humala escaped his orbit. Chavez gave them money and/or oil. He handed out some $150 billion to become a regional leader. Cuba has received about $25 billion. Nations that received his handouts voted in his favor in the Organization of American States. Argentina and Brazil also became political allies in exchange for huge commercial contracts and murky financial deals. Chavez bought entry into into Mercosur, in clear violation of the rules of this organization. Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica cynically admitted that “they could not refuse the power of Venezuelan oil”.

From 2011 onwards Venezuela started to experience significant economic problems due to the decrease in oil income. In parallel, Chavez fell ill. He became politically and physically weaker.  And then he died.

The evanescent nature of his political empire is becoming evident. As Gore Vidal defined the death of Truman Capote, his exit could be called a good career move, since Venezuela’s progressive economic crisis is making it very difficult for the regime to keep followers satisfied. Chavez’s clout was based on money and personal charisma. After his death his colorless successor, Nicolas Maduro, does not appear able to keep the country under control. His death will promote the emergence of pretenders to Chavez’s regional throne.

When we look at possible alternatives there are not many that can fill the void. The Castro brothers are gone, Nicaragua’s Ortega is a poorly functioning administrator, Bolivia’s Morales is very mediocre and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner a weak leader. There is only one really strong candidate to replace him: Rafael Correa. He is much better educated than Chavez, has great political skills and personal charisma, and shared with Chavez an authoritarian style and a strong hatred of the United States, since his father spent some years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking. However, Correa has no money, the magic weapon Chavez used to gain friends and influence political leaders in the region. Correa cannot go far without this essential weapon. In addition, Correa’s international image is poor, due to his attempts at extorting European countries to give him millions of dollars not to drill oil wells in Amazonia, to his support of Julian Assange, indicted of sexual crimes in Sweden, to his brutal attacks on the press, closing down TV stations and suing newspapers and to his siding with corrupt lawyers and judges to try to extort ChevronTexaco of $19 billion. A recently published book: “El Cuentero de Carondelet”, by Ecuadorian author Nicolas Marquez, shows proof that Correa is a pathological liar. 

However, all of those undesirable traits also characterized Hugo Chavez. Correa should not be underestimated. With his political skills he could obtain the money to finance his ambitions of regional prominence. Potential allies could be China and Iran. China is eager to deepen its economic and political roots in Latin America, while Correa’s ties with Iran have been strong in the last four years. In particular Correa has been depending heavily on loans from Iran. The Ecuadorian Central Bank has been named as a possible money laundering agent for Iranian banks.

However,  General John Kelly, head of the US Southern Command said a few days ago: “The reality on the ground is that Iran is struggling to maintain influence in the region, and that its efforts to cooperate with a small set of countries [the members of ALBA] with interests that are inimical to the United States are waning”.

 It would seem, therefore, that Socialism of the XXI century without Chavez is unlikely to survive for long and that Correa might become just a much diluted version of the defunct Venezuelan leader.  

Gustavo Coronel, a 32-year oil industry veteran, was a member of the first board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and is the author of several books. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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