- Special Pages
Hugo Chavez is known to evoke reactions ranging from the swooningly adulatory to the viscerally negative. But none will deny that he was one of the greatest leaders Latin America has seen, whose absence will be missed, be hard to fill, and will also be celebrated by his critics who would see an opportunity to shape the region in their mould. Leaders from across Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe are expected to fly into Caracas along with celebrities to pay respects to Chavez.
Chavez’s death after a two-year battle with cancer was received by the world with shock. His departure after 14 years at the helm marks the end of an era not only for Venezuela but the entire Latin American region. His biggest contribution, according to his supporters, is that he helped throw off the shackles of capitalism and foreign interference. They say he fell ill because he devoted all his energy to a peaceful “revolution.” Latin America will miss him because for many of its leaders he was a mentor and father figure. Cuba will be one of the biggest losers. Chavez helped the communist country with cheap energy and other things in a way no other leader did.
Venezuela-US relations suffered severely under Chavez. The world will now be looking to see how the US will use his departure to mend ties with a long-time foe. Reports say that anticipating a change, Washington has already quietly started engineering an opening with Caracas after a chill in relationship during which ambassadors were withdrawn. US relations with Cuba are improving after Fidel Castro’s exit from power, and the same could happen with Venezuela too.
And for President Barack Obama, often a target of Chavez’s anti-American scorn, even reacting to his death was a sort of challenge. He was circumspect and described Chavez’s passing as a ‘challenging time’.
Venezuela will face an election soon and the country is unlikely to face a crisis though there could be problems on the economic front. Vice president Nicolás Maduro is Chavez’s successor. Undoubtedly, he will have to work hard to win the same acceptability as his mentor. Opinion polls suggest that he will struggle against Capriles, a youthful challenger who casts himself as a centrist and has the support of traditional elites. But Maduro stands to benefit from an emotional funeral and he will get a chance to consolidate himself in power in the first term.
Maduro must realise that a balance, rather than domination, will serve the region better and Chavez was a powerful counterforce against dominating powers. Also, he needs to tread cautiously and embrace the best policies of his mentor. He will be expected to stick vehemently to the leftist path•