Surviving Chávez

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 6, 2013


After the death of Hugo Chávez, regional integration initiatives championed by the late Venezuelan President have lost traction. Because it is unlikely that any of other president of the Bolivarian circle will command the same international recognition as Chávezand it is highly unlikely that any country will provide the funding, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) might well suffer from a slow but certain death.


Since he assumed power in 1999, the charismatic Venezuelan president launched a number of programs aimed at increasing his political clout in the region.  His ideological proximity with the Cuban revolution made helping the Fidel Castro government a top priority for his government.  The close working relation that resulted from the oil exports from Venezuela to Cuba and the technical and strategic support offered by the Cuban government to the Bolivarian Revolution Hugo Chávez was launching in his country made the Havana-Caracas alliance the most powerful political coalition in Latin America in recent history.


The series of electoral victories by leftwing candidates elsewhere in Latin America, triggered by the popular rejection to draconian Washington consensus policies, generated an environment that was friendly to anti-imperialist rhetoric and in favor of a stronger role for the public sector in economic activities.  The decision by the Bush administration to launch war against Iraq using the September 11 attacks as a justification severely damaged the reputation the U.S. had built in Latin America as a friend and ally during the Clinton years.  The Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) initiative championed by Clinton in the 1990s was mismanaged by the Bush administration and it finally derailed. President Chávez and other leftwing leaders in Latin America successfully blocked the FTAA and instead began promoting alternative trade, social and economic integration initiatives.


ALBA was the most popular and best funded integration initiatives.  Led by President Chávez, ALBA sought to reduce the economic interdependence between Latin American countries and the United States. By offering oil at subsidized prices to Latin American energy-dependent countries, President Chávez was able to build a strong and reliable network of friendly governments. The U.S. could no longer rely on its former Latin American unconditional allies in international organizations.  In part due to the bullish policies pushed for by the Bush administration in foreign affairs, even governments that were friendly to the U.S. withdrew their support to some of the most outrageous policies championed by the White House.   Since the U.S. government was perceived to be behind the failed coup attempt against Chávez in 2002 further polarized the region against U.S. interventionism.  Even governments that disliked Chávez policies and integration initiatives ended up quietly taking sides with Venezuela against the Bush administration.  To be sure, some countries moved forward with free trade agreements with the United States—most notably Chile, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Central American countries, but the U.S. lost influence in the region under Bush while Chávez gained power and became a unquestionable leader in the region.


The arrival of Barack Obama to Washington in 2009 softened the polarization and made it easier for market-friendly governments in Latin America to begin pushing for integration initiatives alternative to those championed by Chávez.  Domestic political problems and falling oil production reduced Chávez leverage abroad and his influence over neighboring countries.  The election of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Sebastián Pińera in Chile, two moderate rightwing presidents, allowed for the emergence of an alternative integration trade initiative, the Pacific Alliance. Defined as a market-friendly bloc, the Pacific Alliance sought to undermine the influence and attractiveness of Chávez’s ALBA. Since the Venezuelan government was constrained in its ability to offer subsidize oil and since several ALBA members appeared paying only lip service to the ambitious integration initiatives promoted by Chávez, the Pacific Alliance made progress while ALBA began to stagnate.


A disputed presidential election in Venezuela further limited Chávez influence and ability. Eventually, his cancer made it evident that ALBA was much more his own initiative than an institutionalized integration initiative. After his death, the future of ALBA was in doubt.  Nicolás Maduro, his successor as Venezuelan president, lacks Chávez charisma and has far less discretionary power over Venezuelan oil.  Though leftwing presidents in Latin America have vowed to deepen ALBA’s integration initiatives, they have so far failed to put their money where their message is.   The absence of a leader that can take on the role so effectively—and controversially—played by Hugo Chávez has further weakened ALBA in what used to be its strongest dimension, symbolism.


The ALBA summit currently being held in Guayaquil has attracted only a handful of national leaders. Without Chávez, ALBA lacks its controversial power and political weight.  Though President Rafael Correa seems interested in occupying Chávez role as the regional leftwing leader, the Ecuadorian president lacks the charisma and the deep pockets.   Just as people mourned the death of Chávez in the streets of Venezuela shouting that Chávez would never die, regional leaders in Guayaquil insist that ALBA will survive and be stronger.  Those promises are little more than wishful thinking.