January 11, 2013 6:51 pm

Unease grows for Venezuela’s generosity

The effusive show of support for President Hugo Chávez from his leftist allies in the hemisphere this week betrayed an unease that Venezuela’s generosity abroad may dry up if he succumbs to the cancer he has been battling with since June 2011.

Amid growing expectations that the socialist leader may soon be forced to relinquish power, regional leaders who depend on the Opec nation’s oil wealth delivered messages of support and gratitude for Mr Chávez in Caracas on Thursday before crowds of adoring supporters.

“If it were not for the energy lifeline that Petrocaribe has provided, much of the region would by now be in economic free fall,” said David Jessop, director of the Caribbean Council.

He cited “nervousness” throughout the Caribbean over whether the Petrocaribe agreement, under which Venezuela sells oil on concessionary terms, would remain intact in the event of Mr Chávez’s death. Most at risk is communist Cuba, a close ally of Mr Chávez, which Venezuela supplies with more than two-thirds of its oil.

That explains the wide attendance of foreign dignitaries in Caracas, as they anxiously await news of Mr Chávez’s health, with the “21st century socialism” of his Bolivarian revolution hanging in the balance.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner arrived in Cuba on Friday to visit Mr Chávez, saying on Twitter she planned to give a Bible to the Venezuelan leader. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s vice-president, also said he would fly to Cuba on Friday to speak with Mr Chávez in person, and announced that Peru’s President Ollanta Humala was also expected in Havana.

Thursday’s event marked the symbolic inauguration of Mr Chávez’s third six-year term, but the president was too sick to attend. Mr Maduro, who Mr Chávez named as his political heir before leaving for cancer surgery in Cuba a month ago, was at pains to project continuity.

But little is know about whether a government run by the former trade unionist would deviate from Mr Chávez’s radical economic path, marked by heavy government spending as it coincided with a tenfold rise in oil prices.

“Like Khrushchev two weeks before Stalin died, we know really next to nothing worth knowing about Maduro. If we did, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today,” said Francisco Toro, a prominent opposition commentator.

“One does not put oneself in a position to succeed the object of a furious cult of personality by taking strong, clear stands,” he said, describing Mr Maduro as a “yes man”.

As Russian Sukhoi fighter jets executed deafeningly low fly-bys over the rally on Thursday, interpreted as a demonstration by the armed forces that they remained firmly behind the government, the fervour of the supporters dancing and chanting in the streets of downtown Caracas underlined the strong emotional connection Mr Chávez had established with Venezuelans.

Many wore red shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I am Chávez”, echoing the magnetic leader’s assertion that he “is” the people. Analysts doubt whether Mr Maduro, who lacks Mr Chávez’s charisma, would be able to achieve such a strong bond with Venezuelans, many of whom have an almost religious reverence for Mr Chávez.

Nevertheless, David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office for Latin America, argues that in the short term it is unlikely that much would change under Mr Maduro, who would still have to face elections against an opposition candidate if he were to become Venezuela’s next president. Pollsters say he would have a good chance of winning if elections were held soon.

“Maduro has been a key player in Chávez’s inner circle for a number of years. Ideologically he tends to be leftist and anti-imperialist with a discourse very similar to Chávez,” said Mr Smilde. Having been foreign minister for the past six years, Mr Maduro is likely to be more flexible at the negotiating table, he added.

“Maduro’s role has been almost exclusively in the international sphere and we should expect continuity there. He has less experience in Venezuela’s fractious domestic politics and it is there where he will be most tested,” said Mr Smilde.

Despite the likelihood of continuity in foreign policy, a new government will be constrained by its need to moderate extravagant spending during Mr Chávez’s tenure.

The economy is weighed down by a growing fiscal deficit. Domestic imperatives are also expected to place heavy demands on state resources to maintain stability and unity among the disparate factions of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

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