Hugo Chavez: Venezuelan leader’s Latin American legacy

Cuba says Hugo Chavez was like a “true son” to Fidel Castro

Charismatic and controversial, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was the most influential Latin American leader of his generation

Inspired by Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar, he was an outspoken advocate of regional unity in opposition to US “imperialism”.

His example inspired left-wing leaders to win power across Latin America.

He also cut a provocative stance on the world stage, forging links with US enemies such as Iran.

Before Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, left-wing leaders struggled to win elections in Latin America.

Afterwards, the left began finding it hard to lose.

Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru – all voted in left-wing presidents of varying shades, all inspired to some degree by Hugo Chavez.

Analysts spoke of a “pink tide” sweeping the region as votes opted for leaders who emphasised tackling poverty and social injustice, and who took a critical view of of US influence.

Particular allies included President Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina.

An exception was Colombia, where Mr Chavez’s alleged support for left-wing Farc rebels caused tension with conservative President Alvaro Uribe.


19th Century independence leader Simon Bolivar was a key influence

‘Father’ Fidel

With his fiery revolutionary rhetoric, Mr Chavez was in many ways the ideological heir of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, taking on the mantle of left-wing opposition to US influence in Latin America.

The veteran Cuban revolutionary, 28 years his senior, became a close ally and mentor – perhaps even a father figure.

Cheap oil from Venezuela rescued Cuba’s struggling socialist economy.

In return, Cuba sent thousands of health workers to Venezuela to support President Chavez’s social project for the poor.

Havana also sent security advisers and intelligence agents as maintaining the Venezuelan alliance became critical to the survival of the Cuban revolution.

Whether the cheap Venezuelan oil continues to flow now Mr Chavez has died will be a vital consideration for Cuba, as well as for other poor Caribbean nations that benefitted from his generosity.

Mr Chavez also helped set up new regional bodies to provide an alternative structure to the Organisation of American States, which excluded Cuba and – in his view – was dominated by Washington.

The Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (Alba) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) were all founded as part of the drive for regional integration.

Brazil under Lula showed another route for the left

Strange bedfellows

Further afield, Mr Chavez’s initial diplomatic focus on reviving the Opec oil exporters’ cartel to boost revenues brought new alliances with other anti-US leaders.

Leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran became close allies.

When the uprisings of the Arab Spring broke out, Mr Chavez remained staunch in his support for Col Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seeing the revolts as evidence of US meddling.

Supporters justified this stance with the Arabic proverb “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

Critics replied with an old Spanish adage: “Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Arguably, his influence in Latin America began to decline from about 2006 as the economic problems of Venezuela under Chavez became more apparent.

Brazil under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became for many a more attractive model.

There, a moderate left-wing government was lifting millions out of poverty without alienating business and investment, implementing social change without political polarisation and international confrontation.

When Ollanta Humala stood for president of Peru in 2006, he was dubbed the “Peruvian Chavez,” and lost.

In 2011 he cast himself as the “Peruvian Lula” and won.

Beyond politics, Mr Chavez’s personal style – his rhetorical flourishes, his mischievous sense of humour, his affinity with the man and woman on the street – won him many friends across the region.

His contribution to greater unity in Latin America – including less US influence – may prove his greatest legacy.

But his personal hero Simon Bolivar pursued the same dream before concluding that “those who serve a revolution plough the sea”.


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