Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, who died Tuesday, made it his mission to sway Latin American leaders away from the US and toward his brand of populist socialism. Chavez made strides, but his influence in the region had been waning.
In December 1994, Miami and the Clinton administration hosted the first Summit of the Americas, an event that drew the leaders of every country from Canada to Chile but Cuba. It was perhaps the zenith of the quest to cast the Western Hemisphere in Washington’s image, with a vast, Arctic-to-Tierra-del-Fuego free-trade area among market economies that banished populism and ostracized Cuba as the lone vestige of a bygone socialism.
Enter Hugo Chávez, a red-bereted, self-described Bolivarean revolutionary – after the George Washington of South America, Simón Bolívar – preaching a very different vision to a struggling but oil-rich Venezuela. Mr. Chávez’s model of socialist populism struck a chord that reverberated well beyond Venezuela – and that sounded the death knell of the thinking, more than a century old, that Latin America had no option but to follow Washington’s lead.
Chávez died Tuesday after a long illness that, in recent months, silenced the usually vituperative, blustery, even outrageous leader. He leaves a Latin America much changed from the one he encountered when he first took office as Venezuela's president in 1999.
The change is not so much because Latin America adopted the model Chávez espoused, but rather because Chávez made it his project to persuade others – in part by handing out vast amounts of his country's oil revenues – that alternatives to Washington’s economic and political vision were possible.
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