Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez returned home Monday after 10 weeks of cancer treatment in Cuba, tweeting to his supporters, “We will live and we will conquer!” Still, many believe Chávez has come home to die, a belief supported by comments from his son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, who days earlier described his medical care
The prospect that Chávez will soon leave not only the presidency of Venezuela but also his undisputed position as the most prominent of the leftist leaders in Latin America has triggered a race to fill his revolutionary boots.
The charismatic and histrionic Chávez burst on the scene at about the same time that another iconic, theatrical figure started to wind down his unofficial job as commander-in-chief of Latin America’s would-be leftist revolutionaries. Nobody would have dared challenge Cuba’s larger-than-life revolutionary, Fidel Castro, for the mantle of leadership of the regional left. But the aging Castro embraced the Venezuelan as his heir. Chávez glowed inside Castro’s politically charged bear hug. The Venezuelan president wrapped himself in the flag of revolution and set out to create a solid bloc of “21st century socialists.”
Chávez invented 21st century socialism and his “Bolivarian” revolution, named after the independence hero Simon Bolivar. The model, with some variations, was replicated in a handful of other countries by leaders emulating Chavismo’s aims. Chávez’s ideological allies in the region moved to improve the lot of the poor and aggressively empower political supporters by taking control of as many levers of power as possible. They rewrote constitutions to extend the length of the presidency, nationalized key industries, launched large-scale social programs, challenged Washington and other rich nations, took down Latin America’s traditional elites by a peg or two, and fortified themselves with the love of the long-suffering masses.
Just hours before Chávez made his unannounced, middle-of-the-night return to Caracas, one of his possible heirs scored an impressive electoral victory. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa won re-election
by a wide margin, and promptly positioned himself as a candidate for a regional leadership role
, declaring, “We will be present wherever we can be useful, wherever we can best serve our fellow citizens and our Latin American brothers.”
Chávez’s backers in Venezuela seemed warm to the idea. The Venezuelan government, officially led by Chávez, issued a statement calling Correa’s victory “a victory for ALBA, for the Bolivarian and socialist forces of our America.”
ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, was founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 as a trade bloc to counteract the proposed Washington-centered Free Trade Area of the Americas. Chávez expanded the group by supporting ideological soul mates with generously subsidized sales of Venezuelan oil.
Correa aspires to the regional leadership role, and he too possesses charisma, smarts and oil. Despite his electoral landslide, however, Correa’s victory does not guarantee smooth sailing ahead. He has faced sharp criticism at home and dramatic confrontations with a variety of groups, including indigenous communities. Ecuador has a track record of removing presidents while they are still in office. So Correa, who has an ambitious and controversial agenda for his new term, will not be able to take his attention away from domestic matters for very long.
Also struggling at home and eyeing a larger regional role is Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The Argentine president traveled to Havana to pay a personal visit to the ailing Chávez, perhaps hoping for an anointment as his successor. But her domestic troubles
may make a larger role unattainable, even if she has proved masterful at manipulating nationalistic passions for political gain, a key element of the Chávez doctrine.
Fernandez has deftly stoked anti-British sentiment over the contested Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas in Argentina. She has taken on Uruguay, the IMF, the World Bank and other outside forces, blaming them for her country’s woes. But the tactic seems to be losing effectiveness
as Argentina’s inflation rate spirals and her critics gain traction.
Fernandez’s approval ratings are now plummeting, eroding her chances for a prominent role on the Latin American left.
Other leftist followers of the Chavista model hail from countries too small and impoverished to cut a major figure on the international arena. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who has already traveled to Caracas
to meet with Chávez since his return, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega preside over the poorest countries in Latin America, with such profound problems that there’s little time for the global stage.
In Uruguay, the former guerrilla fighter-turned-president, Jose Mujica, has strong popular support, and his country has posted extraordinary economic gains. But the aging Mujica is hardly a devotee of Chávez’s theatrical method acting. In a recent interview, the self-effacing 77-year-old told the New York Times
, “We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated.”
None of the potential leaders of the Latin American left can count on the massive oil wealth that lubricated Chávez’s path as he spread his largesse to build alliances with neighboring countries. The candidates for the unofficial leadership post also face the Chávez legacy: a mixed bag of social empowerment, political polarization and economic mayhem. The Chávez message does not resonate the way it once did.
Chávez’s anointed successor at home, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will have his hands full holding on to power in
Venezuela. Chávez may yet try to give his seal of approval to another regional leader. But there is little hope that anyone will be able to fill his shoes as the leader of Latin America’s 21st century socialist project.
The task of convincing the poor in Latin America that Chavismo is the way forward has become much more difficult since another route has proved much more effective. The model made popular by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, aggressively raising the income of the poorest while unabashedly supporting the business community and welcoming foreign investment, has brought prosperity without strife. In countries such as Peru, leftist President Ollanta Humala won election by explicitly rejecting Chavismo
, and moved on to follow a different model and bring the fastest economic growth rates in the region.
The race to fill Chávez’s shoes will unfold in the coming months and years. The understudies will be auditioning before the crowds, but it is likely that Chávez’s most historic role -- that of internationally recognized revolutionary and global headline-maker who upends the traditional Latin American model and endlessly irritates Washington -- will be retired when he leaves the scene.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.