Debating Chávez's Legacy

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Heads of state from around Latin America flocked to Venezuela for the funeral on Friday of Hugo Chávez, a tribute to the undiminished drawing power of the charismatic leftist leader, although perhaps not to the lasting influence of his socialist-inspired policies.

Mr. Chávez, who died Tuesday of cancer at 58, was one of the loudest voices in Latin America, pushing a vision of regional unity and defiance of Washington, sweetened with cheap oil shipments to needy neighbors. But the legacy of Mr. Chávez's Bolivarian revolution remains more limited than he would have liked.

"It didn't catch on," said Alejandro Toledo, a former president of Peru. "The important thing is that Mexico has not followed his example, Chile has not followed his example, Peru has not followed his example, Colombia has not followed his example, Brazil has not followed his example. I'm talking about big countries with large, sustained economic growth."

Venezuela had one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Mr. Chávez held office, according to World Bank data. It has high inflation and chronic shortages of basic goods. It has one of the highest rates of violent crime, and it is riven by bitter political divisions.

"Those indicators were not lost on other parts of the hemisphere," said Patrick Duddy, a former United States ambassador to Venezuela.

And while poverty went down significantly during Mr. Chávez's years as president, other countries, like Brazil, Peru and Colombia, made progress in reducing poverty while following paths very different from that of Mr. Chávez.

Brazil, in particular, has emerged as a model that some governments in the region are seeking to emulate, balancing a friendlier approach to private enterprise with innovative social programs that have lifted millions from poverty into the middle class.

"The intention of Venezuela to be the shining light of the new left has not been realized," said Leonardo Valente, a professor of international relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "The other countries that have governments to the left and center-left are looking to Brazil and other countries that have a different position, a more balanced position."

Yet Mr. Chávez had many influential and enthusiastic allies, as evidenced by the international outpouring that followed his death on Tuesday.

In an opinion article published in The New York Times on Thursday, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, whose policies are credited with the country's strong economic growth and poverty reduction, lauded Mr. Chávez for his commitment to improving the lives of his country's poor.

And he praised him for his pursuit of regional unity, including his role in starting groups like the Union of South American Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

But some analysts point out that Mr. Chávez also clashed with some regional leaders and undermined efforts at integration that did not mesh with his ideological views. And his fiery clashes with the United States were seen by many as counterproductive.

"What happens with Chávez's passing is the temperature goes down a little bit, the decibel level goes down," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "Chávez has been a very polarizing figure."

President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a close friend of Mr. Chávez, was among the first leaders to arrive in Caracas this week, and he made the entire seven-hour walk on Wednesday beside Mr. Chávez's coffin from the hospital where he died to a military academy where he lay in state.

People stood in line for hours for the chance to pass briefly by the glass-covered coffin where Mr. Chávez lay, wearing a green uniform and a red beret like the one he wore when he first appeared on the nation's television screens after the failed 1992 coup that he led.

"He looked just like he did in life," said Luis Cabrera Aguirre, a retired rear admiral who served as an adviser to Mr. Chávez.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Mr. Chávez's designated successor, announced that the government intended to embalm the body -- "just like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, like Mao" -- so Venezuelans could see him eternally on display in the Museum of the Revolution.

Throughout the day on Thursday, government television broadcast the nonstop passage of mourners. Many saluted the president's remains. Others crossed themselves. One elderly woman beat her breast and nearly fainted. Meanwhile, conflicting accounts of Mr. Chávez's last hours emerged.

The Reuters news agency reported that a government official had said that Mr. Chávez fell into a coma on Monday and died the next day of respiratory failure.

But the head of Venezuela's presidential guard, Gen. José Ornella, told The Associated Press that Mr. Chávez died of a major heart attack after mouthing the words, "I don't want to die. Please don't let me die."

Many questions remained over what is next for Venezuela. Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said Wednesday that Mr. Maduro would become interim president and that the government would adhere to the Constitution, which says the nation should proceed to a new election within 30 days. Late Thursday officials said that Mr. Maduro would be sworn in president on Friday. But no election plans have yet been announced.

A decree declaring a seven-day period of national mourning had already appeared with Mr. Maduro's signature, identifying as "president in charge." It was also signed by two dozen cabinet ministers.

Mr. Maduro is expected to run for president against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who lost an election to Mr. Chávez in October.

Most political observers expect that Mr. Maduro will ride a wave of loyalty and grief over Mr. Chávez's death to an election victory. Yet looming economic problems and deep political divisions will make for a difficult transition, which the region will be watching closely.

Oil is the heart of Venezuela's economy -- the country has the world's largest estimated reserves -- and, although the United States buys more Venezuelan oil than any other country, it was also at the center of Mr. Chávez's foreign policy and its anti-American thrust.

Mr. Chávez forged close ties with fellow OPEC member Iran, in defiance of the United States-led effort to isolate that country over its nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was expected to attend the funeral.

And Mr. Chávez shipped oil to Syria despite international repudiation of President Bashar al-Assad's aggressive response to an internal uprising.

Closer to home, Mr. Chávez assured himself of the loyalty of his neighbors by shipping billions of dollars of oil and fuel a year to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean under special agreements that required them to pay for only a portion of the cost up front, often with products like chicken, soybeans, wheat or clothing. The remainder of the cost was structured as a long-term loan at low interest.

The program was popular among his supporters in Venezuela, who saw it as a high-minded expression of solidarity with other underdeveloped nations. But the opposition was bitterly opposed, seeing it as a costly giveaway at a time of many unattended needs at home. Even if Mr. Chávez's supporters remain in control, a rocky economy and stagnant oil production could ultimately make it hard to keep the oil program going at present levels.

The most extreme consequences of such a change would be felt in Cuba, a main ally, which has been propped up by large shipments of Venezuelan oil. But other countries, like Nicaragua and Bolivia, will feel the bite, and it may hamper the ability of a successor to retain the support of regional leaders.

"Venezuela's influence in Latin America was built on the back of oil exports and oil wealth," said Blake Clayton, an energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Whoever succeeds Chávez will have a hard time retaining, let alone increasing, the country's influence with its neighbors."

Clifford Krauss contributed reporting from Houston.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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