by W. Alex Sánchez
Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Hugo Chávez Frias, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, passed away on March 5, 2013, due to severe health complications. For at least the past year and half, the Venezuelan head of state had been battling cancer that continued to appear in spite of several surgeries. He traveled to Cuba for a new round of treatment this past December 2012, naming his vice President, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor, should the worst happen.
Now, the question is whether Maduro will respect the country’s constitution and call for new presidential elections within the constitutional period of 30 days. The Venezuelan opposition has not yet elected a candidate, though all eyes are on Henrique Capriles Radonski, who ran and lost to Chávez for the presidency in the October 7, 2012 elections. He was reelected as the governor as the state of Miranda in the recent December 16 regional elections.
Venezuela has had the same president since 1998, with Chávez creating a very particular foreign policy. A critical question will be how will the post-Chávez Venezuelan government organize its relations and initiatives with other states, and how vastly will they differ from Chávez’s vision.
Regarding foreign policy, a critical question is what will become of Chávez’s pet project, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). This bloc is made up of nations whose presidents were friendly to Chávez, such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. President Correa recently said that the revolution was larger than one man and would continue even in the event of Chavez’s death. Nevertheless, it is debatable whether any of ALBA’s heads of state, including Maduro, are charismatic enough and have the same interest in the alliance to keep it afloat. Correa was recently reelected and Morales is scheduled to run for a new presidential term in 2014; likely to be reelected. It remains to be seen whether any will be able to carry out Chavez’s vision.
Oil and Petro Caribe
Chávez used oil recourses to not only improve the quality of life of poor Venezuelans, but also as an integral part of his foreign policy. After coming to power, he expelled Western oil companies operating in the country and replaced them with Chinese and Russian based companies. In addition, Venezuela donated millions of barrels of oil to needy Caribbean states, particularly Cuba, but also countries like Trinidad and Tobago.
Without Chávez, it is questionable how Venezuela’s oil will be extracted. Should elections be called for and Capriles Radonski comes to power, would he accept, once again, Western oil companies? Furthermore, even if Maduro continues to govern, will Venezuela continue to provide such high quantities of oil, essentially as gifts, to Cuba and other regional states?
Finally, an important consideration will be the Caracas-Washington relationship be in the coming years, having been shaped mainly around the personalities of their leadership in the past decade. For example, US Venezuela relations were fairly strained while Chávez and George W. Bush were in power. Chávez went as far as memorably calling Bush “the devil” during a UN conference in New York. When Barack Obama was elected President, there was a general feeling that relations would improve.
Indeed, Obama and Chávez met during a summit of the Americas, with both leaders shaking hands and Chávez giving the American head of state a book as a gift. While relations during Chávez and Obama’s first presidential term did not worsen, neither did they improve as desired. One complicated factor was the U.S. maintenance of the Cuban embargo.
Chávez regarded Fidel Castro as his mentor. The U.S. also prevented Cuba from attending the April 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, with Cuba’s allies protesting the decision.
Without Chávez, how will Washington-Caracas relations be affected?
Obviously, much will have to do with whether Maduro remains in power or Capriles enters the presidency. Maduro may end up not being as hardlined as Chávez while Capriles may seek improved relations with Washington for economic reasons.
Venezuela in the post Chávez era will certainly look different than when he was alive: the question is how different. Will Maduro, who rose up the ranks from bus driver to become foreign minister and vice president, remain faithful to his mentor’s socialist vision? Or will Capriles, or another opposition candidate, win the presidency and take the country in a different direction, potentially making it resemble Venezuela’s pre-Chávez era?
A critical aspect of Venezuela’s post Chávez government is how its foreign policy will be structured. During his tenure, Chávez determined much of Venezuela’s foreign policies in accordance with his ideologies. It will be of interest to see whether the ministry of foreign affairs and its diplomatic corps will have more impact on future policies.
W. Alex Sanchez is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.