The death of Hugo Chavez will have little short-term impact on Venezuela’s current trajectory of “Boliviarian socialism” or on its relations with the United States. His long illness and resounding re-election victory last October gave his cohorts both the time and the legitimacy to project an image of continuity and stability. This, combined with the ongoing social welfare benefits meted out to Chavez’s core followers, will ensure a victory for Chavez’s anointed successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, in snap elections to be held next month. Maduro will have some serious economic challenges to tackle, including rising food prices, the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere and mounting debt. The recent decision to devalue its currency, however, demonstrates that the Chavistas are willing to make some hard decisions. Those are likely to be put on hold, however, until after the next round of elections.
In foreign policy, Maduro is unlikely to veer from Chavez’s tested formula of demonizing the United States, at least rhetorically, a tactic he has already deployed in accusing Washington of somehow instigating Chavez’s illness and expelling two U.S. military attachés.
The longstanding close relationship between Chavez and the Castros in Havana is likely to continue under new leadership in Venezuela, at least for the short to medium term. Cuba has carefully inserted itself into the transition planning process in Caracas and both sides benefit from continuity in terms of oil subsidies, medical and education services, security and intelligence cooperation and ideological and anti-U.S. solidarity.
Washington should bide its time and quietly wait out what should be a relatively smooth transition to a post-Chavez leadership and then remount its earlier efforts to turn a page away from the antagonism of the Chavez era toward a more pragmatic relationship of mutual interests. If Maduro concludes, however, that he has more to gain parroting the Chavez line of virulent anti-Americanism, it will be difficult to turn the other cheek for another six years.