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Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez Dead at 58 After Long Battle With Cancer

March 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Hugo Chavez, a larger-than-life political figure who served as Venezuela's president for 14 years, has died from cancer at age 58. Carl Meacham, director of Americas Program at CSIS, and Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue join Margaret Warner to discuss Chavez's legacy and what it means for the future of Venezuela.


RAY SUAREZ: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is dead. The 58-year-old leader succumbed to cancer this afternoon.

We turn again to Margaret for that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The announcement of the Venezuelan leader’s death came late this afternoon by the country’s vice president, Nicolas Maduro.

Chavez had shown remarkable staying power, ruling the South American country for 14 years. He survived a coup that briefly deposed him, a constitution that term-limited him out of office, and won an October election after his first bout with cancer.

He and his brand of revolutionary socialism antagonized three U.S. administrations, as he cozied up to the world’s most isolated regimes in Cuba, Iran, and Syria.

For more on his death and what it means for the future of Venezuela, I’m joined by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Carl Meacham, head of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And welcome to you both.

Michael Shifter, Chavez is gone. What does he leave behind?

MICHAEL SHIFTER, Inter-American Dialogue: Well, he leaves behind a country that’s very, very polarized, very divided. There’s tremendous mistrust.

A lot of people had a lot of hopes and expectations for him. There’s going to be a lot of sadness and a lot of grief, genuine grief, in Venezuela. He was somebody who put his finger on the legitimate grievances, the social injustice and social inequality in Venezuela. But in the end, he couldn’t solve the problems, because he concentrated power in his own hands.

There was only one person who made decisions for 14 years, and that was Hugo Chavez. And that doesn’t work in this day in age. And so it’s a country that has high rates of inflation, tremendous crime, scarcity of goods, fiscal deficit. It’s not in good shape, decaying infrastructure. So whoever takes over, whatever happens, it’s going to be very, very difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say, though, Carl Meacham, that he transformed a country more than most leaders in the modern era can or do?

CARL MEACHAM, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Sure, you can say that he led — his personality was larger than life. There’s no doubt about that.

And he was able to push through some reforms that were very helpful to a lot of folks that needed them. He was able to speak for folks that hadn’t been respected in Venezuela before. On the other hand, there’s the autocratic leadership. There’s questions with regards to his commitment to be a democratic leader. There’s question with regards to his ability to be a rational actor in an economic — in a capitalist world.

And the views that folks have regarding the economy now in Venezuela are very, I would say there’s — in his wake, he leaves a lot of destruction in areas that before his leadership or before his tenure weren’t as bad.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean like the oil industry, for example?

CARL MEACHAM: Correct. Correct.

MARGARET WARNER: So can Chavisma — Chavismo survive Chavez’s death, in other words, his brand of he called it 21st century socialism, or is it unsustainable?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think it will survive in some form.

This is — there are a lot of people that have benefited a lot from this regime over 14 years. They benefit in terms of power, in terms of money. This is a regime that has a lot of money and spent a lot of money. Oil was $10 dollars a barrel when he came in, in 1999, and it’s gone up to way over a hundred.

So there are a lot of people that have benefited from this regime. And it’s going to survive. He is a figure that generates enormous passions. Nobody is neutral about Hugo Chavez. And you look at other countries, like Argentina, Peron. Peronism survives many, many years after Peron. So this, I think, will survive.

But nobody can match his charisma, and nobody can have his ability to hold things together. He had enormous leadership and he had money.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that? I mean, do you think this economic approach in particular can survive him?

CARL MEACHAM: I think the questions are out there with regards to the survival of Chavismo.

I think that, as you have seen with places like Argentina with Peron, they survive in — might — they might survive in name, but the actual implementation of these models, there’s no such thing as Chavismo. There’s patronage within Chavismo, and there’s — there’s not a model to strengthen government institutions within Chavismo.

There is not an opening up to economic opportunity within Chavismo. So I think there are a lot of questions with regards to this way of governing going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Do either of the at least main candidates or likely candidates in the next election, do they share this vision that he so relentlessly pursued?

CARL MEACHAM: I think that, first of all, we don’t know if there’s going to be an election any time soon. There’s been a funny sort of interpretation of the constitution of Venezuela.

MARGARET WARNER: Which calls for elections in 30 days, but …

CARL MEACHAM: But they haven’t done it. And there’s been an actual designation by President Chavez to have his vice president, Mr. Maduro, succeed him, when the constitution actually said that the head of the assembly would take over for 30 days and there would be an election.

So there’s questions in that regard. But is there going to be a model of Chavismo going forward? We don’t know if it’s going to survive the events that are coming up during the next months.

MARGARET WARNER: Did he, Michael Shifter, nurture kind of a new generation of leaders that shared his vision, or was it quite particular to him?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think it’s — nobody can — he has a vision, and he thought he was Simon Bolivar ..


MICHAEL SHIFTER: … his independence hero of South America. And he really had a — there’s very, very — the other leaders that are there, the most probable candidate, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, clearly doesn’t have his vision.

He’s been a loyalist. There have been yes-men. They have been part of this machine, this apparatus that he’s built up, part of the movement, but they don’t embody what he had.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about his reflex — his anti-Americanism? That was one of his signature issues. Maduro today accused the United States essentially of being behind his illness, expelled two Air Force attaches.

Is that likely to endure?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think Maduro did this. He needs to shore up support and rally the base of — I think — I disagree with Carl. I would be very surprised if there weren’t elections, frankly.

I think that there are going to be elections because the government is in a very strong position. They’re going to win. At least, the odds are that they’re going to win. There’s a lot of compassion and sympathy. Chavez’s death will further mobilize that. So they’re in a strong position.

The opposition is very disoriented, very, very demoralized. And so there are going to be elections. It gives them legitimacy. So I think that is going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: And back to the U.S. interests here, do you think this anti-Americanism is somehow really embedded in the political culture?

CARL MEACHAM: I think that, within Chavismo, it is.

I think before the tenure of President Chavez, you had a much more mixed view towards the United States. I would disagree with what Peter’s saying about the elections and support within Chavismo. Chavismo is split. Chavismo, we are going to also see what happens with Chavismo in the next coming days. We’re also going to see what is going to happen with the military support of whatever model occurs or emerges out of Chavismo. And there’s the opposition, who really would want to have elections.

So, the opposition might even benefit from a split within Chavismo. We don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: Very complicated.


MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you very much, Carl Meacham and Michael Shifter.


GWEN IFILL: Online, you can find a slide show highlighting Chavez’s political career. That’s on our home page.