CARACAS, Venezuela — “I hope this doesn’t hurt Obama,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on state television over the weekend, acknowledging that with elections coming up in the US, his words could be jumped upon by the Republicans. “But if I was from the US, I’d vote for him.”Those words may haunt the US president in the coming days, though Chavez’s foreknowledge of this is more interesting than the throwaway rhetoric.Chavez is a populist of rock-star proportions, floating with his ideology atop the world’s largest oil reserves, and it is ultimately that oil wealth that’s made him such an important global power.Facing his toughest elections yet on Sunday, Oct. 7, Chavez may well be on his way out after 13 years at the helm of all that oil. But even if he does win, as opinion polls have predicted, is Chavez still as relevant as he believes in a Latin America that’s moving on and to a US government that is far from the policies of former presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush?
“The South American leaders pay lip service to Chavez as one of their own but behind closed doors they’re either laughing or crying,” said Riordan Roett, director of Latin American Studies Program at John Hopkins University in Washington, DC.
Chavez does have ideological allies across Latin America, from the Castros in Cuba to Presidents Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina, whose government is increasingly following Venezuela’s trail, both in domestic and foreign policy.
“If Capriles wins he will be eager to jettison the us versus them mentality that has marked Chavez’s rule,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “This may not mean matching the current coziness in Venezuela’s relations with Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia, but it will mean an effort to keep relations on a good track, enjoying trade and diplomatic ties.”
While those ties will no doubt continue, it is Cuba that is likely to suffer most from a Chavez loss. The Venezuelan president sees former President Fidel Castro as his mentor. Cuba’s Vice President Carlos Lage declared in 2005 that his country had “two presidents, Fidel and Chavez.”
Venezuela provides Cuba with between $5 billion and $15 billion annually — nearly a quarter of the communist island’s $63 billion gross domestic product — in return for human capital such as doctors and sports coaches. The free oil shipped to the island would come to a halt should Capriles come to power.
“With severe problems in terms of poverty and infrastructure, oil gifts that represent about 3 percent of our GDP are not acceptable,” Capriles said. “These gifts disguise the buyout of geopolitical favors to an ideological agenda as international development support.”
A loss for Chavez has the potential to plunge Cuba back to the so-called Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the island suffered a chronic economic crisis as Havana was no longer able to offset the US embargo. The economy contracted 35 percent between 1989 and 1993, and oil imports decreased nearly 90 percent in that same period. The Cuban people suffered food shortages, some losing up to a quarter of their body weight.
However, Havana is this time somewhat more prepared, especially as President Raul Castro has begun to open up the economy slightly. Oil investment from China and other projects show that the government there is willing to diversify, as are many across the region.
Source: Global Post