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The end of the Chávez era

Supporters of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez hold a banner with an image of the leader during a tribute in Tegucigalpa last Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Supporters of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez hold a banner with an image of the leader during a tribute in Tegucigalpa last Thursday. Photo: Reuters

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez presents an opportunity for a more moderate and pragmatic brand of politics not only in Venezuela but also in Latin America.

Chávez emerged as the figurehead of the region’s anti-US and left-wing politics

Chávez certainly introduced a number of measures in favour of the poor; indeed, he made the poor the centre of the social and economic programmes, which is commendable and he deserves credit for this. Under Chávez, Venezuela slashed poverty from 52 per cent in 2000 to 32 per cent in 2010.

However, Chávez’s economic mismanagement, his attacks on the free press and free speech, his failure to distinguish between party and state, his partisan divisiveness, his dependence on high oil prices as well as his close friendship with a number of dictators was most unwelcome.

While Chávez did a lot to fight poverty, many other Latin American countries did the same without ravaging their economies or eroding civil liberties and dividing the country in the same way as Chávez did. Brazil, Peru and Chile are three such examples.

During his 14 years in power Chávez emerged as the figurehead of the region’s anti-US and left-wing politics. He was particularly close to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and fellow populist leaders in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, as well as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Chávez made 13 visits to Iran as President, while Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela six times since 2005. The populist President once famously once called President George W. Bush “the devil”. He also bought popularity in his region by giving billions of dollars worth of oil to countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua.

Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor and interim President, will now stand for President in an election which he is expected to win, principally because of an upsurge in the sympathy vote for Chávez.

The opposition candidate will likely be Henrique Capriles, a regional Governor who lost to Chávez in last year’s presidential election. It will be interesting to see how Chávez’s United Socialist Party will fare in the future, since to a great extent it was built around a personality cult that is no more.

Also interesting will be the effect of Chávez’s death on regional alliances and relations with the US. Hopefully his death will give rise to a more pragmatic blend of politics, even by left-wing governments, such as policies practised by the ruling parties in Brazil and Peru.

Shannon O’Neil, a scholar at the US Council on Foreign Relations, remarked after Chávez’s death: “You’ve already seen a turn away from Chávez’s 21st-century socialism. Now, that view has lost its loudest voice.”

It is also possible that Nicolas Maduro, who will probably be elected President, will continue to use anti-Americanism as a pre-election rallying cry. This would be a pity, and the two sides should ideally use Chávez’s death as an opportunity to mend ties to their mutual benefit.

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