By Taylor Marvin
Does Hugo Chávez’s death herald the end of Latin America’s resurgent left? Recently Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Foreign Policy that Chávez’s passing indeed did — in his de facto leadership role as the dominant personality among South America’s leftist national leaders Chávez was irreplaceable. In Vargas’ telling Chávez’s unique personal charisma and access to Venezuela’s vast oil wealth allowed him to assume this leadership position, leaving “a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez’s political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.”
But claims that Chávez’s death represents a major blow to left-leaning politics through the continent both overestimate Chávez’s personal influence and the unity of these leftist governments. It is certainly true that Hugo Chávez was the public face of Latin America’s modern leftist governments, much more than Chávez’s longtime partner Fidel Castro. Castro was the venerable elder, politely respected, but largely irrelevant; Chávez the ambitiously energetic younger with the deep pockets to grease the patronage channels Castro could not. But it’s a mistake to understand Chávez’s leadership position as a practical one, rather than the symbolic role it actually was. As Colin M. Snider recently noted, Latin America’s left-leaning leaders are a disparate group that share between them as many distinctions as similarities, and certainly aren’t a unified bloc existentially dependent on Chávez’s continued leadership. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff leads a government perceived as significantly more technocratic than Chávez’s populist regime, and enjoys growing international clout largely unavailable to Venezuela. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are populists and were strong Chávez allies, but it’s difficult to argue that either’s domestic appeal will be somehow less politically viable now that Chávez is gone.
But despite Chávez’s undeniable regional influence, there’s no reason to think that his absence leaves an unsustainable vacuum. This symbolic leadership position was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone. Hugo Chávez aspired to a position of international leadership, and when one wasn’t available he rhetorically co-opted otherwise disparate left-leaning Latin American governments into a nominal “movement”. Certainly various leaders, Morales and Correa especially, both supported and politically gained from this co-option, their electoral successes weren’t dependent on it, primarily because the narrative of South America’s leftist resurgence has always been stronger than it’s actual significance. This perception gap is driven by politics — both supporters and detractors of this so-called resugence have an incentive to rhetorically paint it as either more revolutionary or more threatening than it actually is. South American politics are becoming more open and competitive, and the United States’ influence over the region is certainly diminishing. But contrary to the claims of leftists and their opponents, the successes of left-leaning leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina is more likely a cyclical trend than a long-term revolution. Chávez may have taken advantage of this swing, but despite his self-congratulating rhetoric he did not create or sustain it.
But while South America’s recent leftist electoral successes doesn’t comprise any unified movement that will suffer terribly at Chávez’s absence, it’s also unlikely that his outsized figurehead position will be filled anytime soon. Chávez wasn’t able to position himself as one of the most influential leaders in Latin America simply because of Venezuela’s oil wealth. While the largess oil revenue made possibile certainly bolstered his influence, Chávez became the symbolic figure that he was because he wanted it, and had the personal charisma and combative style to back up this ambition. Even among successful populist politicians Chávez’s ability to draw — and polarize — international attention is rare. The global importance of Venezuela’s oil certainly gave Chávez a platform, and he would not have been as internationally visible if he was the leader of another country. But there is no reason to think that another left-leaning Latin American leader will soon have the capability or ambition to replicate the Chávez brand.