Venezuela's United Socialist Party is already facing a succession battle between two prospective successors to Hugo Chávez: Nicolás Maduro, an avowed communist and close friend of Cuba, and Diosdado Cabello, a former military official with ties to the country's business community. Whichever man wins, he will have to remember that Chávez has skillfully relied on a mix of both strategies to win the love of his people -- strident anti-americanism and largess for the poor on the one hand, and kickbacks to big business and billions of dollars in oil sales to the United States on the other.
Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s anointed heir, is expected to cruise to victory in Venezuela’s upcoming presidential elections. But the easy part ends there. Once in office, Maduro will face a dysfunctional economy, high crime, and the broken political system Chávez left behind.
Hugo Chavez speaks during a rally in Caracas, 1998. (Reuters)
Two decades ago, following the end of the Cold War, the United States and Latin America seemed more prepared than ever before to forge political and economic partnerships. Latin America was emerging from an era of stagnation and economic crisis and appeared to be moving toward market economies and liberal democracies. In the early 1990s, building on U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s widely applauded vision of a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone, Mexico, Canada, and the United States negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement. At the Organization of American States’ conference in 1991, which brought together 34 countries, a landmark agreement codified collective pro-democracy actions. Continuing this trend, the hemisphere’s democratically elected leaders gathered for the first-ever Summit of the Americas in 1994 and confirmed their deepening commitment to democratic principles, growth-oriented economic policies, and broad U.S.–Latin American cooperation. Words like “consensus” and “community” were used to capture the sense of good will.
Since 1999, however, when the recently deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez came to power, the sense of community in the region has dissipated. Policy divergences among Latin American countries have become sharper; free trade and liberal democracy are no longer popular goals; and Latin America and the United States have, albeit cordially, gone their separate ways. Admittedly, generalizations about Latin America are risky; after all, for every country that has deviated from democratic norms, another has moved toward them. And Chávez was not single-handedly responsible for deflating the hopeful spirit that prevailed two decades ago. But his relentless defiance of Washington and its chief allies -- often accompanied by aggressive, even belligerent, rhetoric -- polarized the region...