THE DEATH of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has the potential to birth a dramatic change in his oil-rich country’s relationship with the United States. But it may take years to materialize, if it ever does.
Much will depend on how far the Obama administration is willing to go to encourage Chavez’s successor. Before Chavez’s death Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro implied that the United States had given the president cancer.
That absurd assertion contrasts with foreign policy analysts’ assessment that if Maduro succeeds Chavez, he won’t be the same type of revolutionary leader, and he may seek closer ties with America. They note meetings Maduro had in November with the assistant U.S. secretary of state for Latin America.
Moving closer to the United States may require Venezuela to break, or at least loosen, its bond with Cuba — something Chavez, who worshipped Fidel Castro, wouldn’t do.
Castro milked the relationship. As Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro put it in a New Republic article Wednesday, “tens of billions of petrodollars” from Venezuela “propped up the last bastion of totalitarianism in the Western Hemisphere long past its sell-by date.”
Chavez’s death may have many Americans thinking “good riddance,” but he had admirers in this country, including a number of political liberals in the film industry.
Also mourning Chavez’s death was former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, who said the Venezuelan leader had helped nearly 2 million Americans through Kennedy’s heating-assistance charity, Citizens Energy, which distributes heating oil to low-income families. Venezuela donated 200 million gallons of heating oil over eight years.
Critics said Chavez used the heating-oil program as propaganda to portray President George W. Bush’s administration as unsympathetic to the poor. Chavez was indeed a master at manipulating attitudes. He used all forms of media to project a heroic persona while keeping an iron grip on power.