Some called him a dictator. Some called him a hero for the working man.
In either case, Hugo Chavez, the charismatic leader of Venezuela, was hard to ignore. He died Tuesday in Caracas, losing a battle to cancer and leaving a Venezuelan economy under duress and a strained relationship with the United States.
Chavez’ death could mark a chance to break down the walls that have prevented a US/Venezuelan relationship, said Melissa Rogers, Ph.D. in Political Science and a professor at the Claremont Graduate University.
It will all likely fall on the lap of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who had already been running the country while Chavez received treatment in Cuba, she said.
“I think it’s going to be very important the way that the next leader chooses to either continue the ‘Chavista’ legacy or depart from it,” Rogers said.
“I suspect we’ll probably see more of a continuation more than a departure. But this is an opportunity to move in that direction,” said Rogers, an expert in Latin American politics.
What will come from Chavez’ death is all speculation, but Rogers said she is not expecting a dramatic change in the way Venezuela works with its neighbors, especially not so soon after the passing of their popular president.
The Obama administration today made a move toward forging a relationship through a statement released to the media.
“At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” the statement read.
“As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
To talk about Venezuela’s future would be to speculate, as difficult as defining the Chavez himself.
His popularity among his people is indisputable. The middle class and, particularly, the poor put Chavez in office in 1999. He was re-elected three times and kept his title until his death. As a boy he dreamed of career in baseball but instead became paratrooper commander who would eventually lead a failed coup attempt against the government, according to biographies, including a profile on PBS’s Frontline.
And he presided over a growing economy and often used the country’s rich oil supply to his political advantage, according to experts. But more recently, the country has felt the pinch of a struggling economy.
In January, the Los Angeles Time reported the country was facing high “inflation rates, a ballooning government deficit and price controls that have created a thriving underground market in food staples. Despite an oil bonanza, U.S. dollars are scarce and worth four times the official rate on the foreign-currency black market.”
Should the people begin to suffer there could be a turning away from the Chavez policies, Rogers said. But again, it’s all speculative at this point, she said. The challenge with Hugo Chavez was that he was difficult to define as either completely a dictator or progressive socialist.
He did not have the poor human rights violations that others, such as his hero Castro, did, Rogers said. But there were questions. He won elections, though some argued not all of the votes were fair and untainted.
“And that’s part of the difficulty I would say with democracy in a lot of the developing world, including in a lot of Latin America,” Rogers said.