The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday left a large void in the leftist leadership of Latin America and raised questions about whether the oil largesse he generously spread through the region would continue.
Allies such as Bolivian President Evo Morales vowed to carry on Chavez’s dream of “Bolivarian” unity in the hemisphere, but in Cuba, heavily dependent on Venezuelan aid and oil, people fought back tears when they heard he had lost his battle with cancer.
His influence was felt throughout the region from small Caribbean islands to impoverished Nicaragua in Central America, and larger, emerging energy economies such as Ecuador and Bolivia and even South America’s heavyweights Brazil and Argentina, where he found favour with left-leaning governments.
Without his ideological presence, Venezuela’s influence is likely to wane and the pure financial weight of the Brazilian juggernaut could fill the gap in the region’s diplomatic realignment.
“He used his oil money to build good relations with everyone,” said Javier Corrales, a US political scientist and Venezuela expert at Amherst College. Venezuela’s oil wealth also made it a major importer of goods from the region.
“His import bill was so big, he became a major trading partner. That’s why his relations were so good,” said Corrales.
Between 2008 and the first quarter of 2012, Venezuela provided $2.4 billion in financial assistance to Nicaragua, according to Nicaragua’s central bank — a huge sum for an economy worth only $7.3 billion in 2011.
Venezuela provides oil on highly preferential terms to 17 countries under his Petrocaribe initiative, and it joined in projects to produce and refine oil in nations such as Ecuador and Bolivia. Chavez also helped bail Argentina out of economic crisis by buying billions of dollars of bonds as the country struggled to recover from a massive debt default.
“When the crisis of 2001 put at risk 150 years of political construction, he was one of the few who gave us a hand,” Anibal Fernandez, a former cabinet chief in Argentina’s government said on Twitter.
Cuba gets two-thirds of its oil from Venezuela in exchange for the services of 44,000 Cuban professionals, most of them medical personnel.
That combined with generous investment from Venezuela helped Cuba emerge from the dark days of the “Special Period” that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the island’s previous top ally, and has kept its debt-ridden economy afloat.
Chavez was close personally and politically to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, with whom he plotted the promotion of leftist governments and Latin American solidarity against their shared ideological foe, the US.