Hugo Chavez had a pretty good run, governing Venezuela since 1999, winning four elections, and having lots of time to put in place and to develop his brand of socialism.
He made quite a mark. At a time when the hemisphere, acting through the OAS, had joined together in a commitment to reject coups d’etat and similar usurpations of democracy, he governed by winning elections and then eroding elements of Venezuela’s democracy, never quite touching a tripwire that would bring an international response. He benefited from opposition parties that had had excluded Venezuela’s poor during their decades in power, and that never found unity or balance in opposition.
Chavez cared about the poor and had an odd way of showing it. He put social programs in place – health, education, income assistance – and at the same time implemented policies that have gone a long way toward wrecking the economy in which poor Venezuelans and all others live. He drove away foreign investment, eroded property rights, imposed foreign exchange controls that distort the entire economy and lead to corruption, and created food shortages. To the latter, his government has responded for years with absurd charges that food producers are hoarding and speculating, as if farmers and distributors go into business for the purpose of keeping their products in warehouses.
All this, in an economy that is more than capable of maintaining both a strong private sector and a large financial commitment to fighting poverty. Venezuela’s oil wealth gave him the wherewithal to set an example for both left and right, but Chavez’ ideology led elsewhere.
Fidel Castro once dreamed of armed revolution throughout Latin America, where the Andes would become the continent’s Sierra Maestra. Chavez surely delighted him, along with the advent of like-minded leaders in Bolivia and Ecuador.
For Cuba, the risk in Chavez’ passing is that the economic relationship with Venezuela may change or end, raising the cost of Cuba’s energy supplies and damaging the entire economy. Chavez’ socialist party, having won the presidency last October and 20 of 23 state governorships last December, has to be counted as a favorite in Venezuela’s 30-day snap election scenario. If the socialists win, the Bolivarian project would seem safe, including its international aspects. If the opposition wins, the relationship with Cuba would likely be scaled back and new prices would be attached to the doctors-for-oil swap that so benefits Cuba today.
The bottom line is that post-Chavez politics is new in Venezuela, and that brings a note of uncertainty for Cuba, the last thing el comandante Chavez would have wanted to leave behind. R.I.P.