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After Chávez

Published March 07. 2013 4:00AM

The tears shed by the sobbing masses across Venezuela following the death of President Hugo Chávez at age 58 are genuine. Many considered their late president a champion of the poor, while others viewed him a villain who ignored the law and trampled democratic principles when it suited him.

Both are right.

President Chávez rose to power by using his rhetorical gifts to tap the frustration of his nation's poor and powerless and making an enemy of the rich and comfortable. And indeed the gross economic equalities in Venezuela and its Latin American neighbors needed addressing.

His socialist revolution did bring quick relief in the form of increased welfare programs, expansive government health clinics in slums and impoverished rural areas, and state-run stores selling discounted food subsidized by the government. That an elected leader was so directly addressing their plight generated intense allegiance among his supporters.

To maintain that support, however, President Chávez saw it necessary to continually demonize the economically successful and corporations, whose investments are necessary to make a modern economy work. First elected in 1998, a decade into his presidency it was apparent the Chávez approach - government confiscation of businesses, nationalizing oil companies - was inhibiting Venezuela's economic growth and fueling unsustainable inflation.

Political opponents and uncooperative judges were jailed, the media co-opted to promote the president's propaganda. As the checks and balances provided by a healthy democracy eroded, corruption, crime and government inefficiency grew.

The transition to new leadership for Venezuela will be difficult. The government's policies, identity, and institutions are so tied to the cult of one personality - Chávez - that it is impossible to predict what will become of his "revolution." The Constitution calls for a quick election, but Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who assumed power, may have other ideas.

Depending on how the politics play out, it could provide an opportunity for the United States to reset its strained relations with Venezuela. The capitalist United States was a convenient foil for the populist president and the distrust was mutual, with successive U.S. administrations concerned President Chávez was pushing South America in the wrong direction.

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