The show is over. Hugo Chavez made Venezuela a talking point for the world, baiting U.S. presidents, firing officials on live TV, playing footsie with Iran and promising to spread Bolivarian socialism across the region. When he died Tuesday, his name was known around the globe.
No one else can be like El Comandante. Venezuelan rule was built around his personality. His erratic charisma made him an occasional disturbance for Canada in its relations with Latin America. But for all his autocratic tendencies at home and his promises to spread revolution, he was always more a distraction than a threat. His death is an opportunity to move on.
John Baird, the Foreign Affairs Minister, was taking a gamble on that when he planned to visit with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro two weeks ago, a trip that was called off when the ailing Mr. Chavez returned to Venezuela for his last days. For Canada, there’s a potential for larger trade if Mr. Maduro, or whomever replaces him, decides to open the economy wider. And there’s the possibility that with the lightning rod gone, relations will move forward – or at least stop being a distraction from the bigger business of expanding trade and ties in Latin America.
The early signs are not promising. Venezuela’s deputy foreign minister, Claudia Salerno, sent a letter blasting Stephen Harper’s condolence statement – which hoped for a future Venezuela based on “democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights” – as “insensitive and impertinent.”
Still, if anything can be predicted now about Venezuela’s future leadership, it’s that it won’t be quite like Hugo Chavez.
He was an elected autocrat, who used state levers and blacklists to repress opponents. On the world stage, he attacked “imperialists,” but still exported oil to the United States. He sent subsidized oil to Cuba, and attracted allies like Bolivia’s Evo Morales in lambasting the United States. But he never really built regional power. “He was entertaining, but that masked the fact that he didn’t really have that much influence in the world,” a former Canadian diplomat said.
One of his innovations was Alo Presidente, the Sunday television talk show he hosted, where he rattled off his largely unscripted thoughts, visited social-welfare projects, quizzed government ministers, attacked American imperialists and, on one occasion, ordered a general to send battalions of troops to the Colombian border. “George W. Bush,” he said on a 2006 instalment, broadcast from a farm, “you are a donkey.”
His TV charisma was a form of government. Officials would parrot his lines from the show as operating principles for governing, one former Canadian diplomat said.
American politicians loved to rise to Mr. Chavez’s bait, attacking the “dictator” as a global threat. The reaction seemed to be just what Mr. Chavez wanted, and fuelled the populist strongman image his supporters embraced. Occasionally, Mr. Harper and his government fired at him, too, and the Chavistas would label them right-wing imperialists. Mr. Harper’s disdain for him was clear.
But Canada’s increasing interest in emerging markets has the Harper government trying to expand trade and ties in Latin America. They focused mostly on countries such as Colombia and Chile that don’t care for Chavismo, but now, as they seek to broaden efforts with countries such as Brazil, spats with Venezuela are a distraction in hemispheric relations.
For the most part, Mr. Chavez’s policies never did have much impact on Canada’s hard interests. The more fanciful policies that did raise concerns, like forging ties with Iran, might just die with him. Now that he’s gone, the Chavistas might revert to a period of imperialist baiting – but without his personal adulation, they may soon be forced to focus on domestic problems such as inflation, corruption and crime. Ottawa would be wise to ignore the bait and hope to move forward, because none of his successors will ever take the global stage like Hugo Chavez.