By Tom Long
In many depictions, South America’s relations with the United States have been structured around Hugo Chávez for much of the last decade. So it is natural for the region to wonder where U.S. policy will head now that he is gone. In the Bush Administration’s framework – which the Obama Administration has largely continued – Chávez and his closest allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina were an emerging anti-American axis. Colombia and Chile were considered Washington’s last bastions of support, and Brazil under Presidents Lula and Dilma variously positioned itself as a quiet moderator or, on occasion, private fan of the estrangement between the unruly ALBA countries and the United States. With Chávez’s passing, the narrative will change.
Although Chávez’s charisma, boundless energy, seductive regional pride, and resumption of Venezuela’s traditional oil subsidies made him larger than life, the depth and endurance of his influence was exaggerated by friends and foes alike. Elements of his vision of a “Bolivarian” Latin America united in resisting U.S. influence have always been present and always will be, but the dynamic Chávez sought, with himself at its center, seems likely to fade fast. Bolivia’s President Morales was the closest to being a protégé, but even he has been compelled by domestic politics to give priority to relations with Washington. Ecuador’s President Correa was never as close to Chávez and largely steered his own independent course. Chavez’s detractors had tired of using him as a foil as well. For years no Latin American leader had found tangling with Caracas – thereby giving Chávez the attention he craved – to be worthwhile. Since Álvaro Uribe’s departure, even Colombia, apparently taking a cue from the oil-hungry United States, has made trade a bigger priority than criticizing its erratic neighbor. Many high-profile Venezuelan initiatives for the continent, such as the Banco del Sur, fizzled. Despite Chávez’s role in their founding, even UNASUR and CELAC had grown away from his personal leadership.
Concerns in Washington that someone will take Chávez’s place as counterweight to U.S. influence seem at least five years out of date. There is no candidate with both the desire and ability to assume Chávez’s mantle. Just as the benefits of close cooperation with the United States have declined, most leaders have little to gain from overt conflict. South American international relations have already grown considerably more complex, as countries developed their own responses to Chávez without taking orders from either Washington or Caracas. The trend of increasing autonomy is natural and, in ways, inevitable – even though it may be irksome to some in Washington, who are skeptical of Latin Americans’ commitment to what Washington thinks should be a shared interpretation of democracy, trade and counternarcotics policy.