Earlier this year, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias, succumbed to the persistent cancer that had affected his daily activities since it was first diagnosed back in mid-2011. Chavez had been president for 14 years, and the end of his reign will bring new perspectives to a Latin American nation with 27 percent of its population living under the poverty line.
Chavez will enter into the hemisphere’s history books as not only one of the longest serving presidents, but also as the architect of “Bolivarian Socialism,” which used the nation’s oil-generated dollars to support Chavez’s belligerent attitude and confrontational stances towards the United States and other industrialised economies. President Chavez also led efforts to champion the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the first two established in 2004 and the latter in 2010. He even managed to have his country become a full member of MERCOSUR in late July 2012, which is the world’s fifth-largest trading block between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Hugo Chavez was highly influential in the Paraguayan Presidential Elections of April 20, 2008, when Fernando Lugo, his close associate, became president of Paraguay, due in large part to the tremendous help received from Caracas, including money poured into Lugo’s presidential campaign. This is why the former scandal-ridden bishop and ex-president, joined by his “Frente Guasu” political group declared three days of mourning for the loss Hugo Chavez. Mr. Lugo considered the deceased Chavez as the father of democracy in the region: “[Chavez] was the leader of integration, sovereignty of nations, democracy and dignity of nations.” He added that “Chavez recovered an important chapter of the Latin American people’s history.”
According to Secretary-General of the Latin American Association of Integration (ALADI), Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez: “[Chavez’s death] is a great loss for an ongoing integration process” He added that no one can question, even his political enemies, the contribution of Chavez for being a leading motivator and dynamic figure, leading the region through the path of integration.” Alvarez also echoed Chavez’s strategy to shape a “more autonomous, solid and just Latin American region” and concluded by expressing his sadness for Chavez’s death.
But was all this praise warranted? Although there is a tendency to artificially isolate Canada and the United States from the rest of the hemisphere, Latin American left-wing presidents don’t realize that their vision is short-sighted, opaque, Cold War-minded and unfriendly to globalized initiatives that seek to make the world a global village. A perfect example of this kind of backward socialist mindset is the fact that even at the first CELAC Summit in Caracas in 2011, corporate America was inevitably present by providing all IT equipment such as IBM computer desktops and large US-branded monitors. No matter how hard they try, the presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador, among others, will reluctantly experience their respective countries’ dependence on global economic and financial trends in which North America is fully integrated and plays a vital and decisive role.
While there are a few Latin American leaders, such as Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega who are deeply rooted in Chavez’s Bolivarian ideology and have embraced his economic policies, this is the time when highly positive outcomes can happen in Venezuela and transform the country into an open market economy and establish close ties with Western economies, and cease to support rogue nations such as Syria and Iran.To do so will be no easy feat, as the domestic situation in Venezuela is not overly positive. Politics continue to be polarized and the nationalisation of strategic sectors formerly run by private corporations remains a drag on the economy; it recorded the 12th-lowest economic growth in the region in 2011.
The Venezuelan ruling class has gradually absorbed the ideological indoctrination of its Cuban communist strategists, whose country has been highly interconnected with Caracas during the last decade, owing to the extenstive oil shipments to the island. With Chavez fading from the region’s political picture, Cuba will begin to strengthen and establish new alliances and partnerships, in addition to Venezuela, with other Caribbean countries.
This is also the perfect chance for the State Department to rise up to the opportunity and embark on an intensive public diplomacy compaign, among with other elements of statecraft, and develop a proactive strategy that would increasingly attract Venezuelan opposition leaders and former Chavista legislators who can lead the way to establish a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Caribbean, a potential success story that would inspire change and reforms in Havana and throughout the wider region.
Peter Tase is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com