Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Aftermath of Chavez: What's In Store for Venezuela?

After battling cancer for over a year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passed away yesterday. President of Venezuela for 14 years, and having just won re-election for another six-year term, Chavez was a charismatic, and often frighteningly influential politician in Latin America. While not necessarily ever on good terms with the U.S., Chavez was a leading figure in South American politics, garnering unwavering support from so many Venezuelans that it was unthinkable he would ever be ousted from his position. Impressive as this was, it was not necessarily a good thing for Venezuela. Chavez dominated politics in Caracas for so long that now the capital is left with a void that will be difficult to fill. Furthermore, many countries around the world are left shaking their heads, unable to fathom what it will be like dealing with a new and, much different, Venezuela.

Chavez and Maduro

The past several months have been particularly rocky for Venezuelan politics: after winning re-election late last year, Chavez was bed-ridden in a hospital in Cuba, leading Venezuela through his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro. As I wrote in January, Chavez was so ill he was unable to attend his inauguration, inciting protests and re-igniting the debate over who should really be leading the country. To the chagrin of the opposition, at the time, the Supreme Court ruled that the President could be absent during inauguration, as long as he was sworn in at a later date.

Well, Chavez was never sworn in. After months of rumors swirling and false reports of his death, Chavez has finally passed away never having technically begun his new term as President. What this means is, for the time being, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will lead the country as an interim President, with an election being held sometime over the next month. The main battle to look for during this election will be between Mr. Maduro, a longtime ally and personal friend of Chavez, and Henrique Capriles, the figurehead of the opposition to the "Chavistas", and currently the governor of the Miranda state in the north of the country.

Venezuelan Officials Mourning Chavez

While it remains unclear what would change under the leadership of Mr. Capriles, it's fairly evident that very little would change under the leadership of Mr. Maduro. Upon announcing the death of President Chavez yesterday, Maduro expelled two American diplomats, publicly stating his belief that the U.S. would try and leverage the tragic news in order to de-stabilize Venezuela. For years, Chavez himself publicly opined that the U.S. was constantly seeking to assassinate him, and steered his foreign policy a full 180 degrees away from that of the U.S., befriending rogue states such as North Korea and Iran in defiance of U.S. wishes. Maduro will likely follow suit, continuing a similar foreign policy agenda while also focusing on allocating Venezuela's vast oil resources towards allies in Latin America and elsewhere, but for the most part far away from American soil.

For now, the status quo may provide a sense of comfort for the U.S. and its Western allies - at least Venezuela was never violent or otherwise menacing towards the Western world. Things seem relatively calm in Caracas, although tensions between Chavistas and the opposition will undoubtedly reach their zenith in days and weeks to come. The U.S. needs to remain supportive of Venezuela, and begin forming contingency plans should unforeseen violence erupt, or Maduro be elected by the Venezuelan people to lead the country for the next six years.

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