When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday, schools were shut for seven days, his body lay in state at the Military Academy in Caracas, and supporters were called on to dress in the three colors of the Venezuelan flag.
For 15 years, Chavez has been nearly synonymous with Venezuela’s identity. Yet as he battled cancer and recurring infections, the 58-year-old president had not been seen since last December.
As the head of the revolutionary movement Chavismo, the leftist leader made virtually every decision for his country. It’s a legacy that will endure beyond Chavez’s life, according to Dr. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour.
“Any successor would have to prove he's more Chavista than Chavez himself,” said Arnson. “The social policies are likely to continue, the foreign policy alliances are likely to continue and the overall political direction of the country is not going to change."
In many ways, it’s a political and economic system that has been propped up by Venezuela’s vast reserves of oil, the largest in the world. Arnson said if the price of oil were not as high, the cracks in the Venezuelan economy would be more visible. Even as he gutted the institutions of liberal democracy and checks and balances, Chavez applied oil profits to the poor.
"He leaves an immensely popular following among principally poor people in Venezuela,” said Arnson. “People who have benefited enormously from the social programs he's implemented using oil wealth. But also he has this enormous emotional attachment for poor people in Venezuela.”
It could hardly be more the opposite abroad. Though Venezuela was the fourth largest exporter of oil to the United States, Chavez used “petro-diplomacy” to organize a coalition of countries which benefited from oil subsidies, notably Cuba, to align in opposition to the West, according to Arnson.
Relations with the United States were particularly frosty. There has been no U.S. ambassador in residence in Venezuela since 2010. Chavez antagonized the U.S. by cultivating relations with Iran and Syria. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama issued a statement in response to Chavez’s death: “The United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
Chavez's state funeral is scheduled to be held on Friday. Under the constitution, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello Rondon, would assume the interim presidency. New elections must be held within 30 days. Chavez had named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his political heir.
"Every indication is that Maduro, who was appointed as his successor last December, will win that election hands down,” said Arnson. “There will be an enormous outpouring of emotion and sympathy after Chavez dies and that will happen within that 30-day period."