Hugo Chavez Dies; Anointed Successor Already Polishing Anti-U.S. Credentials

Patrick Goodenough | March 5, 2013 | 6:54pm EST
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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro attend an event in Argentina in 2006. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia, File)

( – The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Tuesday should pave the way for a new election within a month, providing a second chance for a young state governor who five months ago posed the biggest electoral challenge faced by the U.S.-baiting socialist firebrand in his 14 years in power.

Henrique Capriles Radonski lost the October 2012 election by around 11 percentage points, Chavez’ smallest margin of victory since he first won the presidency in late 1998.

Crippled with cancer, Chavez was unable to be formally inaugurated for a third term, and his death Tuesday came two weeks after he returned to Venezuela after the latest of several rounds of treatment in Cuba.

Venezuela’s constitution now requires a new election within 30 days, and Capriles will almost certainly face the man Chavez named as heir to his “Bolivarian revolution,” Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has wasted no time polishing his radical credentials, taking time out despite the gravity of Chavez’ situation this week to expel a U.S. Air Force attache accused of trying to destabilize Venezuela, and to allege a conspiracy by “the historical enemies of the country” to attack Chavez’ health.

The regime he has effectively been running also responded harshly to the Obama administration’s expression of “sympathy” for the ailing Chavez.

“The Bolivarian Government rejects the Pharisee attitude of those historical enemies of Hugo Chavez,” it said in a communique released on Monday. “They have always lavished hatred to him, insults and despise and they try now to use his health situation as an excuse to destabilize the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

The communique ended, “Long live Chavez!”

Hours before news of his death, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a briefing, “We have expressed sympathy for President Chavez’s illness. Should he become permanently unavailable to serve, our understanding is that the Venezuelan constitution requires an election to select a new president, so the elections need to be free and fair, if they were to go forward and we are in that situation.”

There was no immediate reaction to news of Chavez’ death from the White House or State Department, but House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) in a statement eschewed sympathy, describing Chavez as “a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear.”

“His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America,” Royce said. “Good riddance to this dictator.”

He voiced the hope that, “while not guaranteed, closer U.S. relations with his key country in our hemisphere are now possible.”

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro, center, talks to his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez in Havana on Dec. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Granma, Juvenal Balan Neyra )

In the event of an election pitting the pro-Havana Maduro against Capriles, the stakes are high for the U.S., and for a region which Chavez sought to mold into an anti-American bloc with close ties to Iran, using Venezuela’s oil revenues as a sweetener.

Mark Jones, chair of political science at Rice University, said Tuesday Maduro could well lose to the challenger.

“If Capriles is victorious, he is all but certain to end Chavez’ policy of shipping oil to countries like Cuba and Nicaragua on extremely favorable financial terms,” he said. “In the case of Cuba, the end of Venezuelan petroleum shipments would cripple the country’s already struggling economy.”

In the election last fall, the 40 year-old Capriles campaigned on a platform of pursuing business-friendly policies while making social programs more sustainable, citing the Brazilian model which, he said, “combines the public and the private sectors with social responsibility.”

A devout Catholic, Capriles is the grandson of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who migrated to Venezuela from Poland. During the campaign the Chavez camp sought to smear him by associating him with “Zionism.”

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