The Venezuelan National Assembly has taken an expected, yet significant action, as it has granted President Hugo Chavez more time to recuperate from his cancer surgery (he’s been in a Cuban hospital since mid-December). Chavez’s inaugural ceremony was supposed to take place on Thursday, Jan. 10, after having been elected for a new presidential term (2013-2019) last October. Due to this evolving situation, a number of political analysts are questioning whetherchavismocan survive without Hugo Chavez, along with what will be the controversial president’s lasting legacy.
In respect to Latin American integration, Chavez’s goal was to become a 21stcentury version of his hero, Simon Bolivar, a 19thcentury South American liberator. Nevertheless, Chavez’s success record as a catalyst to bring the region together, and shield it from U.S. influence, has been mixed at best.
Hugo Chavez’s friends, allies and initiatives
The government organized the unusual show of support for the cancer-stricken leader on the streets on what was supposed to be his inauguration day. President Hugo Chavez is recovering in Cuba from complications from his cancer surgery. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
During Hugo Chavez’s fourteen-year presidential tenure, he managed to gain a number of political allies. A critical factor that attracted these powers was his rise to fame, not only in Venezuela, but also in countries rife with left-leaning governments, which personified the anti-Washington, pro-regional integration credo. Examples of such leaders include Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s Castro brothers. With such allies, Chavez managed to create the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA),a loose alliance comprised of nationswhose heads of state share Chavez-like ideologies.
ALBA officials claim the agency has been effective in respect to fostering commercial integration among its members. In 2009, the region created a virtual common currency to facilitate trade among its members, called the Sucre. Currently, the nations that have adopted this alternative currency are Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and most recently Nicaragua. According to ALBA’s executive secretary, Amenothep Zambrano, integration initiatives have been a success. Zambrano arguedin a 2011 interviewthat for every $100 that ALBA states use for international commerce, between $10-20 is used for trade within the bloc.
In addition to ALBA, Chavez’s other major initiative was thecreation of PetroCaribe, an entity that provides Venezuelan oil to Caribbean nations. As the BBC explains, the appeal of this initiative is that “member countries are allowed to retain a part of their payment in the form of a very low interest loan repaid over a twenty five year period.” PetroCaribe has allowed Chavez to gain the respect and gratitude of several Caribbean member-states such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica as well as Trinidad and Tobago. Although PetroCaribe’s goals appear noble, analysts have argued that the nations receiving Venezuelan oil will become heavily indebted to the oil rich country in the long term.
Tensions and incidents
While working towards achieving great regional integration among Latin American states, Hugo Chavez’s presidency (so far), has arguably become better known for its incidents involving regional neighbors. For example, in 2008 Colombia’s then-president Alvaro Uribe, without notifying Quito, carried out a military raid against a camp of FARC insurgents in Ecuadorian territory. While the raid was ultimately successful (a high-ranking FARC leader was killed), the operation caused a diplomatic incident, as Ecuador claimed its sovereignty had been violated since it had not been informed of the operation. In an effort to defend his ally,Chavez deployed his armyto Colombia’s border, ready to declare war on Bogota. Fortunately the situation diffused itself and a war did not commence.
Furthermore, Chavez has been at odds with several fellow Latin American nations throughout this past decade, particularly with respect to Colombia’s Uribe Administration. In 2010, Hugo Chavez againdeployed his military to the border with Colombiaafter being accused by the Colombian government of harboring insurgents. Another incident with a neighboring nation occurred in 2007, when Venezuelan troops allegedly crossed into Guyana in an effort to blow up gold-mining dredges. Both countries have been at odds regarding a disputed territory for years.
Moreover, at the dawn of his presidency in 2001, Chavez was engaged in a diplomatic crisis with Peru, which was under the administration of interim President Valentin Paniagua. This incident was the result of Vladimiro Montesinos, a Peruvian intelligence chief and the right hand of Dictator Alberto Fujimori, who had fled to Venezuela in order to avoid capture by Peruvian authorities. Venezuelan authorities ultimately arrested and deported Montesinos back to Lima, but there has been a long-held belief that Chavez or someone in his inner circle had been actively harboring the Peruvian criminal for months.
A final example—although there are others—of the tensions between Chavez and neighboring governments, relates to the instance of Brazil’s Congress continuously blockingVenezuelan membership to the trading bloc MERCOSUR. After years of waiting, Venezuela finally gained membership in 2012. Chavez’s close ties with Brazilian Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff did not prevent the Brazilian legislative from blocking Caracas’ attempts to join the bloc for several years.
Hugo Chavez as Bolivar 2.0
Since his election in 1999, President Hugo Chavez has often referred to Simon Bolivar throughout his speeches. More than once, Chavez held Bolivar’s sword to show himself as his successor. But the Venezuelan leader has experienced limited success in uniting South America, let alone all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Chavez has utilized the wave of leftist governments that have took over the region throughout the last decade, and has managed to foster relationships with leaders such as Bolivia’s Morales and Ecuador’s Correa, which has allowed him to create entities such as ALBA and PetroCaribe.
In spite of this, the Venezuelan outspoken leader has what some would consider reckless behavior, resulting in clashes with other heads of state, particularly in the case of Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe. Should Chavez manage to fulfill another six-year presidential term, it will be interesting to see what form his foreign policies will take. It remains to be seen if Venezuela’s domestic circumstances will allow him to continue his aggressive foreign policy positions, including his use of oil as a diplomatic weapon. Chavez has attempted to amend the inter-American system by replacing long-standing U.S. influence with that of a greater Latin American authority and with Venezuela guiding the process. Despite his best efforts, Hugo Chavez has certainly remained determined to achieve his goal, and has been marginally successful.