“The End of the Chávez Era” That was the headline on Colombia’s major newspaper, El Tiempo, the day after Hugo Chávez’s death.
True, Chávez’s controversial and colorful 14-year rule has ended, and Venezuela has lost a president who evoked uncommonly intense passions among followers and detractors. Venezuelans will not easily forget a leader who, for better or worse, was the consummate showman and left an indelible mark on a highly polarized society.
Yet Chavez also followed in a long line of caudillos, or strongmen, who have been a notable feature in Latin America’s political history. Indeed, Venezuela has had its fair share. As the acute observer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning writer, noted soon after Chávez’s 1998 election, the new president’s seductive rhetoric recalled so many of the region’s other leading political figures — but he could well end up as yet another Latin American despot.
The difference, of course, was that Chávez, unlike his predecessors – indeed, unlike any other Latin American leader – had a big checkbook, thanks to the immense windfall he derived from spectacular oil price increases since he took office (to more than $100 a barrel from less than $10).
For Chávez, Venezuela was too small. Given his outsized ambitions, he needed a larger stage – not just the continent, but the world – to form coalitions of like-minded nations and consolidate and project his power.