It’s fine to ruminate a bit on the troubling times of Hugo Chavez’s presidency, but the real question is what meeting his maker might mean for the future of Venezuela, the United States and the region.
While elections are required by the Venezuelan constitution within 30 days to replace the deceased leader, the end of “Chavismo” could mean a lot — much of it good, if it happens.
The “Chavistas” have not only been a threat to Venezuelan political, economic and civil liberties, but to peace, stability and U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere for more than a decade.
Without a doubt, the death of “El Comandante” is an enormous blow to the socialist, authoritarian “Bolivarian” revolution he founded. The movement will find it hard to replace the fiery and charismatic Chavez, which will have an effect at home and abroad.
Under a new leader, Venezuela might move beyond its repressive politics and institute a true democracy. It might also gain the free markets and economic vitality the people of Venezuela certainly deserve.
Internationally, Chavez will no longer be the head cheerleader for the radical Latin American left; the end of the anti-U.S. league following that Chavez formed (and largely bankrolled) in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba is possible.
Not only has Chavez kept Cuba’s Castro brothers on economic life-support with billions of dollars in annual aid, he’s also helped the re-rise of Nicaragua’s leftist, (Cold War) retread president, Daniel Ortega.
A new government in Caracas could also lead to removing the welcome mat for Tehran in Latin America, where Venezuela has been aiding Iran to gain a foothold and circumvent international economic sanctions.
Hopefully, a new Venezuelan leader would also kick out the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds force, limiting their freedom of action in that part of the world.
Venezuela might also cut ties with Lebanon’s terror group Hezbollah, which along with Iran is currently propping up the bloody Syrian regime.
And what about the narco-terror group FARC, which sought to destabilize Colombia? They’ve received Chavez’s support for some time, including cash, weapons and safe haven in Venezuela.
Venezuela also became a major drug trafficking transit country. “Narcotraficantes,” including FARC, use Venezuela to export cocaine around the globe, including here in the U.S., according to Washington.
While there’s room for positive change, there are plenty of bad scenarios, too, like instability, violence and more anti-Americanism in an effort to get Venezuelans to rally around the flag — or, more specifically, Chavez’s political heirs.
But the end of Chavismo could be a blow for freedom for the Venezuelan people and this hemisphere, not to mention a blow against the presence and influence of the likes of Iran — and other bad actors.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Venezuelan people were allowed to make that choice in free and fair elections, potentially closing an unhappy and unproductive period in their history and in our bilateral relations?
Sadly, Venezuela may not recover from its post-Chavez hangover quickly enough to seize that opportunity.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in Boston Herald.