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Chávez and Regional Leadership

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Agência Brasil.

Photo by Agência Brasil.

While 2014 may be Latin America’s “year of elections” — with El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and others all going to the presidential polls — 2013 was also a momentous year, marked by the death of Hugo Chávez. Venezuela’s president for over a decade, Chávez mobilized support from among the historically disenfranchised and defined himself as an opponent of both the United States and Venezuela’s traditional elites. Designating himself as the region’s voice of opposition to US “imperialism”, Chávez positioned himself as the vanguard of the wave of left-leaning governments elected across Latin America in the last decade, co-opting the wider turn towards the left as an extension of his own socialist “Bolivarian Revolution”. Combined with Venezuela’s oil wealth — and oil-funded international largesse — this ideological positioning allowed Chávez to claim a personal position as a leader of the Latin American left, a claim buttressed by his close personal relationship with the previous generation’s leading regional ideologue, Fidel Castro.

In an end of the year reflection the Christian Science Monitor writes that after his March 5th death “the region’s leftist movement lost its ideological and economic center of gravity” and asks which leader will replace Chávez as a Latin American figurehead:

“Who could fill Chávez’s shoes as a regional leader? Some point to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the person to watch. This year Ms. Rousseff showed she wasn’t afraid to stand up to the US over allegations of National Security Agency spying, and she speaks to diverse leaders across the region. Thus far, however, she hasn’t shown an interest in taking on the role.”

But it isn’t clear if the “regional leader” of Latin America is a role that necessarily exists at all. In Latin America Brazil hosts the largest economy and is the only country with a reasonable hope of taking a leadership role in the global system or ever securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but is divided by language from the rest of Latin America. Mexico, the region’s next largest economy, is beset by domestic criminal violence. Pundits talk of Germany’s Angela Merkel, and to a lesser extent France’s François Hollande, as the leaders of Europe, but only because this designation conflates Europe the region with the European Union, where Germany enjoys an institutional policy-setting role. In the absence of an interstate union like the EU, the entire notion of a “regional leader” makes less sense — no one speaks of a Middle Eastern or African regional political leader because of these region’s vast size, disparate societies, and fractious members. While Latin America is more culturally and politically homogenous than other global regions, with its population of over half a billion people and two major languages elevating one of Latin America’s national leaders to a leadership role across the entire region stems more from the desire for neat regional hierarchy than any real need for the role to exist.

Hugo Chávez’s self-appointed distinction as a regional leader drew from his own desire to take, or more accurately create, the role. As I wrote in March, Chávez’s leadership position in Latin American politics “was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone.” With Chávez absence, there is no requirement that another head of state will seek to take this regional leadership mantle in the same way that he attempted, regardless of whether they have the charisma, ideology, and political and economic capital to back it up.

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