The death of President Chávez is being mourned by his supporters, while many inside and outside Venezuela wonder what the future holds.
A commanding and charismatic figure in life, Chávez played an outsized role on the world stage, largely by challenging the United States and what he saw as Washington’s economic and political dominance of Latin America.
“He was a guy about power, you can’t really understand Chávez, the way he operated, what he did, what he couldn’t do, unless you understand his tremendous appetite for power,” explained Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “And that meant power within Venezuela, power within Latin America and that meant challenging and defying the superpower.”
He repeatedly accused the United States of undermining his socialist revolution. A failed coup attempt in 2002 tacitly supported by the Bush administration further antagonized the Venezuelan leader and his supporters.
This antagonism is unlikely to change soon.
At a meeting convened the day Chávez died, Vice President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington of plotting to undermine Venezuela and announced the expulsion of two American diplomats.
That does not bode well for future relations, says Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It is sort of sticking to the playbook that Chavismo has used in the past: always blame the United States or blame some foreign entity to distract them from problems that they have going on in Venezuela,” he said.
Despite this, Venezuela is a major supplier of petroleum to the United States and even provides free heating oil to poor Americans through a non-profit group.
American University Professor Philip Brenner says this shows that relations between the two countries would be better if Washington recognizes certain realities.
“I think the important thing to remember about Venezuela is that they have never even threatened to cut off our oil. Venezuela has done nothing to actually harm U.S. interests except to challenge U.S. dominance,” Brenner noted.
Vice President Maduro, a former foreign minister and union leader, is expected to govern Venezuela for now and could be more pragmatic in his dealings with Washington, according to Shifter.
“I think what we can expect from Maduro is a very tough stand, ideological stand, confrontational stand in public but behind the scenes I would imagine he would try to work things out, try to at least establish channels of communication at least, including with the United States,” added Shifter.
Meanwhile, Maduro’s accusations that the enemies of Chávez caused his cancer have been rejected by U.S. officials who have limited their comments to possible areas of cooperation such as counternarcotics and energy in the post-Chávez era.