After Hugo Chávez Who Will Lead in Latin America?

PHOTO: Leftist allies of President Hugo Chavez stand by his coffin in this photo taken in Caracas on March 6, 2013.

Miraflores Press Office/AP Photo

A few hours after Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro ruefully announced Chavez's death on national television, most of Latin America's presidents lined up in front of their own audiences to express their sorrow for the passing of the Venezuelan leader.

"Wherever you are, dear Hugo, our commitment today more than ever is not to take a single step back from fulfilling your dreams, which are our shared dreams," Rafael Correa, Ecuador's recently reelected president, said in a televised statement."

For many years, Venezuela has been a key participant in Latin American politics, a formidable foreign policy player that has seemingly pushed most of the continent to the left. It has exerted its influence through its leader's charisma, and through appealing foreign aid packages subsidized by some of the world's largest oil and natural gas reserves.

Chávez's demise, however, could result in radical changes to Venezuela's foreign policy and lead to power vacuum in the country as Chávez's successor works to assert control, according to some analysts.

"First, I would say that in the next couple of months, Maduro--assuming he is the one elected--will focus inward, trying to unify power, rather than focus outward, toward Latin America," said Shannon K. O'Neil, a Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Second, the Venezuelan economy will have some rough bumps in the coming months, and that, I believe, is when Maduro will have problems unifying the party."

And with Chávez gone, O'Neil says, it is likely no one in Latin American politics will assume the leading part he held for so many years.

"Chavez's heir apparent within the ALBA countries [Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela] is Correa in Ecuador, particularly with his own reelection," she says. "But Chávez, in his own way, was unique, in part because of his charisma and in part because of his money. Ecuador won't be able to do what Venezuela did, Bolivia can't do it, and neither Brazil nor Argentina has shown any interest in doing it."

O'Neil says the "Chávez model" of politics in Latin America was already fading anyway, with countries like Peru, Mexico and Uruguay opting for the the Brazilian model of support for the private sector, fiscal discipline, and social inclusion.

Without Venezuela leading the way forward, several countries in Latin America could face economic and political trials, according to Socorro Ramírez, a leading political scientist from Colombia.

According to Ramírez, Chávez's death heralds political tests for Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. It also means economic problems for Cuba, Nicaragua and the Caribbean countries that, along with Venezuela, form Petrocaribe. Furthermore, it opens the road for Brazil to assume an even larger role in Latin America.

"Chávez was central in this decade of regional changes. His absence will not just be felt in Venezuela," she wrote in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo

Not everyone believes, however, that Chávez's death means great changes in Latin America. There are several researchers who think the impact of Chávez's absence is being overstated.

María Victoria Murillo, a professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Columbia University, says that, though Cuba and Nicaragua might face some hardships in the long run, there won't be any major effects on the region's policies without Chávez.

"The change in regional politics, even if it started with Chávez's election in 1998, is a result of the commodity boom and other economic factors," she says. "I don't think this will change with Chávez's death. I don't think Correa or Morales, for instance, will change their public policies as a result of this."

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America specializing in Venezuela, also says there won't be major shifts. Instead, the policies Chávez implemented throughout the years will go on without him.

His passing "is not likely to affect regional dynamics," Smilde says. "Most of the processes which Chávez contributed to—the increase in regional independence vis-à-vis the US, and the creation of new multi-lateral initiatives such as Unasur and Celac—have inertia beyond Chávez and may even receive a boost from Chávez's death as Chávez is mythologized."

What is clear is that Chávez's death doesn't mean an abrupt end to his influence. On Tuesday, following Maduro's announcement, the heads of state of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua all repeated, in one way or another, the sentiment: "Chávez is now more alive than ever."

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