On Tuesday, Hugo Chavez, the socialist leader of Venezuela for the last 14 years, died at age 58 after a long battle with cancer.
The leader rose from poverty, becoming a powerful national leader and socialist revolutionary. Chavez maintained close ties and friendships with the leaders of communist Cuba, and repeatedly lashed out against the United States and what he deemed elitist European contries. In fact, in 2006, Chavez referred to President George W. Bush as "the devil" who thinks he is "the owner of the world."
Shortly after Chavez’s death, Vice President Nicolas Maduro addressed the Venezuelan people in an emotional national broadcast. Tearing up, Maduro declared, "we must unite now more than ever."
Chavez’s death has left the United States and the world asking many interesting questions. For one, who will succeed the socialist president? Second, what will the new president mean for Venezuelan-U.S. relations? According to the Venezuelan constitution, the V.P. does not immediately take over as president after an untimely death. Rather, elections must be held within 30 days. However, the polarized population makes it unclear who will emerge victorious.
Before his passing, Chavez told supporters that they should consider Maduro his official successor; however, the succession process was never formally completed. Maduro will undoubtedly receive votes from the country’s poor population, many of whom valued Chavez and his socialist revolution as well as from those who share Chavez’s anti-U.S. sentiments. Maduro has responded to Chavez’s death with irrational accusations against the U.S. and other foreign powers. Shortly after reiterating that the leader’s health was looking grave, Maduro lashed out at Venezuela’s so-called "enemies," expelling two U.S. diplomats allegedly guilty of spying on the Venezuelan military. Similarly, Maduro has accused these "enemies" of somehow poisoning Chavez with cancer and insists that he and Venezuelan officials will find scientific evidence of such an act. It seems quite possible that this anti-U.S. hysteria is exaggerated to retain Chavez’s many supporters in the upcoming election. Lastly, Maduro will likely have the support of the many Cuban officials residing in Venezuelan offices.
Two other likely candidates have been repeatedly discussed in U.S. media. First, Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, is arguably the most powerful man in Chavez’s regime. He has undeniable support from the military. His status as one of the wealthiest men in Venezuela and rumors of insincere socialism may help him attract votes from the countries middle and upper classes. Second, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October’s elections, is a centrist politician who is largely supported by traditional elites and is in favor of a slightly more market-oriented economy.
In a country whose livelihood rested on one man, it is apparent that Venezuela will likely be plagued with a period of unrest as the polarized country struggles to elect a new president. The election of Maduro may allow the country a reasonably peaceful transition; however, recent statements from Maduro make it clear that his election will be bad news for the U.S.