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Kevin Bayona: End of the Chavez era

Posted: January 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.

With all the trouble and intrigue brewing in Europe and Asia, little attention is being paid to the looming crisis unfolding in Latin America. Venezuela’s fiery leader, Hugo Chavez, is reportedly on the brink of death after recovering from surgery related to an undisclosed form of pelvic cancer.Chavez has been fighting a severe lung infection in a hospital in Cuba, while the future of Venezuela hangs in the balance.

The relationship between Venezuela and the United States has been an uneasy one, riddled with tension and similar to America’s relationships with its other recalcitrant enemies such as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea.

Chavez is a career military officer who in 1992 attempted an unsuccessful coup d’état which landed him in prison for 2 years.  

Chavez continued to pursue his political career and was eventually elected President of Venezuela in 1998.  Chavez is a diehard leftist and socialist, and admirer of Fidel Castro.  Naturally, Chavez’s affinities have propelled him into an antagonistic relationship with the United States over the last 14 years.

In 2001, Chavez visited Iran and met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss mutual energy and economic interests.  Chavez and Ahmadinejad have both lambasted what they consider to be American ‘imperialism’ and both declared themselves members of an “axis of unity” against the United States in 2007.  

In 2002, Chavez survived an attempted coup d’état, and accused the United States of plotting the entire thing. Venezuela’s close economic relationship with Cuba has also undermined America’s decades-long policy of isolating Castro’s government.  In 2005, Chavez expelled all American DEA agents out of Venezuela and accused them of gathering intelligence to assassinate him.

Chavez has also put his colorful wit and lack of diplomatic tact on display when he called President Bush a “pendejo” (jerk) in 2004, and later called him a “devil” during a speech at the UN in 2006.  He has made similar comments about Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama.   

In 2008, Venezuela cut diplomatic ties with the United States over perceived political infractions inside Venezuela’s ally, Bolivia.  Venezuela later restored diplomatic ties in 2009.  

In 2011, the Venezuelan government criticized the killing of Osama Bin Laden, calling it murder.

Chavez has thoroughly irritated the United States over many years, but it appears now that Venezuela may have to prepare for an uncertain post-Chavez future. Meanwhile, the political maneuvering in Caracas is reminiscent of medieval palace intrigue. Chavez was re-elected to a third term in October and is scheduled to take the oath of office today, Jan. 10 as required by the constitution.  

Venezuela’s Vice President, Nicolas Maduro has publicly stated that the oath of office may be postponed due to Chavez’s illness and can be taken before the Supreme Court at a later unspecified date. Maduro’s comments have enraged the opposition who has accused the government of delaying the possibility of new elections and consolidating power.

The government could legally postpone the oath of office up to 180 days if they declare Chavez to be “temporarily incapacitated” but still actively running the government. Chavez’s inner circle is avoiding such a designation because it would require releasing details about his illness. The opposition is calling for this designation because it would require National Assembly President, Diosdado Cabello (a Chavez supporter) to assume the position of interim President of Venezuela and call for new elections within 30 days.  

Meanwhile, Chavez’s preferred successor, Vice President Maduro and National Assembly President Cabello, both of whom reportedly dislike each other prefer to avoid calling for new elections in order to sort out who will succeed Chavez after his death. The opposition believes calling for new elections will benefit their candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost back in October.

So what does all this mean to the United States? Well, remarkably, trade between the United States and Venezuela has never really suffered much over the last 14 years, but Chavez has been a political cancer (pardon the unfortunate pun) on America’s foreign policy and its anti-trafficking efforts.  

America needs a compliant partner in the war against drug cartels and the violence they generate. Hopefully, a post-Chavez Venezuela will produce such a relationship. Finally, but certainly not least important is the suffering endured by the people of Venezuela under Chavez’s stewardship.  

Venezuela has become one of the least competitive countries in the world, its debt has ballooned to unmanageable proportions, its inflation rate is out of control, food shortages plague its people, its murder rate has spiked, and political liberties have deteriorated.  

Whatever the outcome in Venezuela, Americans and Venezuelans alike should embrace the end of Chavez’s reign and hope for renewed cooperation between the United States and its wayward neighbor to the South.  

Kevin Bayona is a Valencia resident. He earned a BA in international relations and political science from Fairfield University, studied global affairs at New York University, and is a member of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.


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