Will Hugo Chávez`s successor thaw ties with US?

By Kamna Arora | Updated: Mar 08, 2013, 11:14 AM IST

Kamna Arora

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, the larger-than-life leader, is no more. The man who managed to rule Venezuela for 14 long years lost his furtive fight against cancer on March 05. Chavistas, as the supporters of the late president and his brand of socialism are called, mourned the death of their loving president with tears in their eyes. For those who benefitted from the 58-year-old leader`s pro-poor policies, their messiah is gone.

But not many were impressed with the "Bolivarian" Socialism Chávez advocated. As soon as the news of his death spread, Venezuelan expatriates in Florida were seen celebrating the demise of the US` staunch critic at Venezuelan restaurants.

Now that cancer-stricken Chávez`s is gone, Vice President Nicolas Maduro is all set to take over the reins of the Latin American country. Maduro, whom Chávez named as his preferred successor in December, looks set to win the upcoming poll as the candidate of the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV).

The Venezuelan leader`s decease has also opened up the discussion on whether Caracas` ties with Washington will change in the post-Chávez era. During his lifetime, Chávez was always heard thumping anti-US rhetoric. He was also the driving force behind many regional alliances that were stitched up to ensure non-dependence on the United States.

Venezuela, an OPEC member, has had tense ties with the US during Chávez`s rule. When Chávez was elected in 1998, ties between the two countries were warm. Chávez even travelled to the United States to meet the then-US president Bill Clinton. But the relations soon witnessed a downturn. Chávez, in 2002, accused the US of backing a coup against him. Three years later, the bilateral counter-narcotics operations between the US and Venezuela ended.

In 2006, Chávez addressed the United Nations and sent shockwaves among the listeners when he histrionically referred to then-US president George Bush as the devil. The episodes of expelling diplomatic personnel by the US and Venezuela can seemingly fill many pages.

The blame game has never ended since then.

In fact, Chávez in 2011 had speculated that the US may have developed methods to "spread cancer and we won`t know about it for 50 years?" He had made this statement a day after Argentina`s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Addressing the countrymen on TV, moustachioed Nicolas Maduro tried to parrot the sharp tone of his predecessor and alleged that Chávez was the victim of an attack by his enemies. “We have not a single doubt and at the proper moment we will convene a medical board to confirm that Chávez was attacked,” Maduro said. He even went ahead and expelled US diplomats `for plotting against government`, indicating how well he has learnt to vociferously blame Washington for everything that`s wrong with Venezuela.

There are surely many takers of the theory.

According to Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of Russia`s Communist party, the death of Chávez from cancer may have been part of a conspiracy by the US to infect its enemies in Latin America with the disease.

"How did it happen that six leaders of Latin American countries which had criticised US policies and tried to create an influential alliance in order to be independent and sovereign states, fell ill simultaneously with the same disease?" Zyuganov asked on Russian state television.

And there are those, who believe that Chávez`s death has opened the door for new relationship between the US and Venezuela. But it`s not that easy. Washington must be conscious of the new face in Caracas that will rule Venezuela.

Venezuela is experiencing a political vacuum today. If Maduro is elected, which he most probably will, then the US` task of forging better political, trade and commercial relations with Venezuela will become tougher. Maduro, who had served for six years as foreign minister before being named vice president, lacks Chávez`s charisma but inherits the 58-year-old`s self-styled socialist revolution.

He is expected to continue the radical policies adopted by Chávez, including nationalisations and tight state control on the economy.

With increasing inflation, recent devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, over-dependence on oil, the Venezuelan economy is heading downhill. Notwithstanding the rhetorical animosity, trade continued between the US and Venezuela even during Chávez-era.

The US, notably, continues to be the largest recipient of Venezuela`s oil, which sits on the world’s second-largest oil reserves; while US` cars and machinery continue to make their way into Venezuelan markets. Keeping in mind the global economy, which is in doldrums, Caracas can`t just act alone and would need to adjust its economic policies in the changing times.

Despite nationalisation of a number of private companies, there are private US companies working in Venezuela. Also, the emotional connect between Washington and Caracas due to the presence of more than 200,000 expatriates living in the US can`t be ignored.

Maduro lacks Chávez`s charisma, but will he be able to sustain the ideology with which the deceased Venezuelan won the hearts of his countrymen? Amidst growing economic and fiscal problems, will Maduro continue to voice anti-US rhetoric or move towards thawing ties with the US? Questions linger on.