Chavez Death Brings New Chance For U.S.-Venezuela Engagement

The passing of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela unleashed an epic outpouring of grief among his supporters in Venezuela, the likes of which may only be eventually paralleled with the passing of another larger-than-life figure in Latin American socialism, Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Matthew Carnes, S.J., assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, said Chávez will be remembered as a leader who had an “outsized impact in Venezuelan politics.”

Father Carnes said Chávez’s passing offers an opportunity for the United States, politically and economically, to revive its relationship with Venezuela. Occasionally “capricious and doctrinaire,” Chávez was “someone the United States had a hard time negotiating with,” according to Father Carnes.

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Whether his designated political heir, Vice President Nicholas Maduro, or an opposition candidate, most likely Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda, is elected to replace Chávez, Father Carnes expects a more pragmatic and less confrontational leadership to emerge. That could mean improved ties not just with Venezuela but throughout the region, he said, and a possible opening for renewed U.S. investment and partnership with the Venezuelan state oil industry. Despite Chávez’s notorious distaste for U.S. political leaders, under his leadership Venezuela remained one of the largest suppliers of oil to the United States. This is likely to continue.

Chávez died on March 5 of complications from a respiratory infection nearly two years and four surgeries after his cancer diagnosis was made public. He was 58. He will be remembered for improving the basic lot of millions of Venezuelans, Father Carnes said, but more important, he offered to the traditionally politically and materially impoverished of Venezuela “an idea of what society could and should be and then in some ways delivered on that.” Whether or not his social successes can survive his passing is an open question. Chávez, Father Carnes explained, treated his literary, housing or antihunger campaigns as misiones, popular and well-publicized outreach efforts that did not necessarily leave behind a bureaucratic or political infrastructure that could perpetuate social progress.

The relationship of the Catholic Church in Venezuela with the president was complicated, if not at times downright nasty. “There were years that were difficult, tense,” said Auxiliary Bishop González de Zarate, secretary general of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference. “There were attacks and strong responses.... But I feel that there was a calming in the past year.” He said that in the second half of 2012, the bishops’ conference held two meetings with top Chávez government officials, including Vice President Maduro.

Can Venezuelan socialism, Chavismo, survive without Chávez? Certainly his personal charisma will be hard to replicate. “He was always the spokesperson,” said Father Carnes, “He was always the focal point, always the one on TV giving voice to this and, especially behind the scenes, the one pulling the political strings to keep this moving inside of Venezuelan politics, and without that the idea can only go so far.”

Father Carnes said the United States should learn a lesson from its choppy history with this polarizing Latin American figure. “One of the things he’s pushed us on is how little attention we have given to our neighbors right here on the southern border,” said Father Carnes. “And that’s something felt quite strongly throughout the region.”

While a parade of recent U.S. presidents were diverted from the hemispheric south by engagement with Europe, Asia, conflict in the Middle East and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. relations with its closest neighbors and trading partners moldered on the sidelines. “We’ve ignored some of these really vital relationships right here on our borders that really do need more of our attention. That’s something we can learn from the Chávez experience,” said Father Carnes.

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