Latin America has a long, tangled history of strongman rulers. They come and go. Most are no longer household names. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who died Tuesday of cancer at age 58 after a 14-year misrule, may leave a more lasting memory.
Uncertainty clouds the future of Chavez’ legacy, a mix of populist socialism, defiance of the United States, bullying of his political opponents and hero-worship by his followers. Among the major questions: Will Venezuela continue to use its oil wealth to bail out the Cuban economy?
The eventual successor to Chavez might have neither the means nor the inclination to keep Cuba on the dole.
Another question: Will Venezuela continue to support the drug cartel FARC in its war against the government of Colombia?
The death of President Chavez also leaves a large question about the direction of the Venezuelan economy and politics. Mr. Chavez made lavish re-distributions of wealth to the poor while amassing a considerable fortune of his own.
He also was generous to his allies at home and abroad, drawing on Venezuela’s lucrative oil resources.
Yet he grossly mismanaged that natural advantage. Venezuela faces intensifying economic instability, including severe inflation. It also suffers from an appallingly high crime rate.
Though he accepted assistance from Fidel Castro in setting up a secret police force along Cuban lines, expropriated wealth, forced some political rivals into exile and shut down opposition broadcasts, Mr. Chavez did tolerate some dissent to varying degrees, depending on changing circumstances.
And with his tough-guy charisma, he did retain significant popularity among Venezuela’s poor — and among some American celebrities.
Still, his nine-percent triumph last October was his lowest presidential-election margin of victory.
Now, under Venezuelan law, there must be an election within 30 days of Mr. Chavez’ death to select the next president. Venezuelans who have long yearned to break away from Mr. Chavez’ misguided policies are understandably hopeful about the chances to defeat a socialist nominee who lacks his popularity.
The likely candidate of Chavez’ United Socialist Party will be his hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicholas Maduro.
He proved he is cut from the same quirky cloth as Chavez Tuesday by accusing “historic enemies” (i.e., U.S. agents) of having caused the president’s cancer. Mr. Maduro also announced that he was expelling two U.S. diplomats for their “plots” against “the fatherland.”
The U.S. State Department rightly called Mr. Marduro’s charges “absurd.”
Among the many absurd allegations against the U.S. made by Mr. Chavez during his presidency: He said Castro warned him that the U.S. had probably “invented the technology to spread cancer.” He banned Coke Zero from Venezuela, alleging it contained dangerous substances.
A day after George W. Bush addressed the United Nations in 2006, Mr. Chavez, during his own speech to that body, said of the U.S. president: “The devil came here yesterday. And it smells of sulfur still today.”
Mr. Chavez called President Barack Obama a “clown.” He dismissed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a “little girl” and described then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an imperialist pawn.”
But Mr. Chavez spoke highly of his pal Castro, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he ludicrously described Cuba as “the sea of happiness.”
He even cited Cuba’s failed, oppressive experiment in socialism as an admirable model, proclaiming: “That is where Venezuela is going.”
President Chavez’ death gives Venezuelans a merciful opportunity to prove that prediction wrong.