After Chavez: Why Venezuela's future matters to the world
Published Wednesday, March 6, 2013 10:05AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, March 6, 2013 8:35PM EST
South American politics may be little more than a distant, foreign concept for many North Americans, but the death of Hugo Chavez has triggered a ripple of domestic and global apprehension as the international community watches and waits to see what will happen next.
So why should the world care what happens in Venezuela?
Marco Vicenzino, of the website FreeVenezuela.org, said the oil-rich, socialist nation is deeply divided domestically and has powerful, controversial allies internationally, such as Cuba and Iran. As a result, the world has little choice but to sit up and take notice when political change is afoot.
Vicenzino said the country is deeply divided between those who supported the socialist revolutionary and those who opposed him. In the wake of Chavez's death, as the country determines its future direction, those divisions could become starkly clear.
"For his followers, those who basically had nothing before he came into power and received something, they will be grateful to him and there are others whose lives have not improved in any way and in fact their basic human rights have been violated," Vencenzino said.
"There's a great amount of polarization, intimidation, division, it all depends on who you're asking. Every person in Venezuela will have a different view on him."
Internationally, Chavez was an equally polarizing figure. He leaves a legacy of tense relations with democratic, capitalist nations and close ties with socialist countries such as Cuba.
His so-called "21st Century Socialism" had the dual goals of alleviating social ills in Venezuela while at the same time attacking globalization and existing democratic institutions around the world.
America was often the target of Chavez's attacks. He once described former U.S. president George W. Bush as "the devil" during a fiery United Nations speech.
Indeed, Chavez removed Venezuela from America's orbit and established close ties with Washington rivals Cuba, Iran and Russia, all three of which saw officials offer words of praise and mourning immediately following Chavez’s death.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement saying the U.S. is committed to establishing a "constructive relationship" with the nation going forward.
"As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights," the statement read.
The result of Venezuela's volatile international and domestic relations has been a weakening of democratic institutions within the country, political polarization both domestically and internationally, a politicized military and heavy economic reliance on the petroleum industry, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Venezuela also has a track record of mining operations that have endangered the country's rainforests and indigenous peoples.
And Chavez's willingness to maintain warm relations with countries like Iran -- and to allow Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Venezuela -- have caused nations such as America and Canada to keep a close and wary eye on the country while at the same time often depending on its vast oil resources.
Venezuela is highly dependent on those oil revenues, which account for roughly 95 per cent of export earnings, 45 per cent of federal budget revenues and around 12 per cent of the nation's GDP.
Vicenzino said the results of Venezuela's upcoming election to replace Chavez will significantly affect the country's international relations going forward.
His funeral Friday is to be followed by a 30-day period to prepare for an election.
Venezuelan vice-president Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez appointed to succeed him just days before his death, will remain as interim president and will be the governing socialists' candidate in the coming election.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, is widely expected to be the opposition's candidate to oppose Maduro.
If a free and fair election results in a win for the opposition, change will be dramatic. Nations such as Cuba, which rely heavily on Venezuelan aid, will likely see the flow of oil-generated revenue reduced, if not turned off altogether.
However if Maduro wins the election and the governing socialists retain their hold on power, little is likely to change, he said, noting that Maduro is from the party's grass roots and was a close confidante and supporter of Chavez.
"He'll have to prove he's just as firm and aggressive as Chavez so in terms of rhetoric I don't think you'll see much change. If anything you'll see more of a radicalization during the election process," he said.
Some aspects of the relationship between Venezuela and the U.S. are not likely to change, Vencenzino said. The U.S. will likely continue to be a major customer of Venezuelan oil, and U.S. dollars will remain a major source of revenue for the country's economy.