Rpt-ANALYSIS-Allies to lose socialist patron if Venezuela's Chavez goes

Andrew Cawthorne
Reuters Middle East

(Repeats with no change in content)

* Socialist president battling cancer in a Cuban hospital

* Global 'anti-imperialist' front would lose vocal champion

* End to Chavez rule would be blow to Latin American allies

CARACAS, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Murals adorning a Caracas slum

that has given militant backing to President Hugo Chavez over

the years are a virtual pantheon of international radicals.

From Colombia's FARC guerrillas to the Palestine Liberation

Organization and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the images and slogans

on teeming slopes above Chavez's presidential palace hail

socialist revolutionaries the world over.

Beside them are tributes to Chavez himself - testimony to

the Venezuelan leader's bid to place himself at the front of

global "anti-imperialism" in his ever-controversial 14-year


Now, though, as Chavez battles cancer in a Cuban hospital,

his role as garrulous international activist and rich godfather

to fellow leftists around Latin America is under threat.

"All Venezuelan revolutionaries, and all people of good

faith around the world, are praying for his recovery," said

Greivis Garcia, a 26-year-old mechanic at a vigil for Chavez in

the January 23 slum full of revolutionary images.

"We need him so much. And so does the world. But whatever

happens, Chavez will live forever, damn it!"


Should he die or be forced to stand down, faraway friends

from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Belarus's President

Alexander Lukashenko and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad would

lose a loud and highly visible supporter.

Chavez has provided some concrete help to such allies -

skirting Western sanctions to send a few controversial fuel

shipments to Tehran and Damascus, and doling out home-building

contracts to Chinese and Belarussian companies.

Yet his international role has been mainly symbolic.

From visiting Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2000 to cheering

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi during his final days in 2011; from

calling former U.S. leader George W. Bush "the devil" to hailing

the veteran Marxist militant known as Carlos the Jackal, Chavez

has never lost an opportunity to goad and shock the West, and

the United States in particular.

"Venezuela used to be known only for two things: oil and

beautiful women. Now, it is famous the world over for just one:

Chavez," said a senior Western diplomat in Caracas.

"He has deliberately courted controversy from day one. It is

hard to imagine that booming voice falling silent."

Chavez has influenced some election campaigns around Latin

America in recent years by showing support for leftist

candidates and making clear that their victory could bring

economic support from his government

Unlike former Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the Cold War,

however, Chavez has not committed troops to foreign wars or

helped train Marxist guerrillas to fight right-wing governments

in their home countries.

He does not have a nuclear weapons program and he has

continued to sell oil to the United States even when fiercely

criticizing its policies.

In geopolitical terms, he is much more a man of rhetoric

than of action.

The quietening of Chavez's voice might be a relief to

Washington and local foes who see him as an embarrassing friend

of dictators. But to many, especially round the Third World, he

is admired - a bit like Castro - for standing up to U.S. power

and daring to say what plenty of others thought.

Chavez is due to start a new, six-year term on Jan. 10, but

he is still fighting to recover from his fourth cancer operation

in just 18 months. He has named a preferred successor, Vice

President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, to be the ruling

party's candidate in an election should Chavez be forced out.

There is little sign that Maduro - a former bus driver,

union activist and committed socialist who has faithfully echoed

his boss's views around the globe for the last six years - would

change Venezuela's foreign policies.

Yet without the flamboyant personality of Chavez promoting

these policies, the impact would be diminished.

Under the many speculative scenarios - from death to a full

recovery - one would be that Chavez takes a Castro-like role,

leaving day-to-day affairs to Maduro but opining from behind the

scenes as an elder statesman.


In his Latin American backyard, where Chavez has led a

resurgence of the left since his own rise to power in 1999,

there is far more at stake from a possible end to his rule.

Around the region, smaller nations whose governments are

politically allied with Chavez - from Cuba and the Dominican

Republic to Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador - have come to rely

on Venezuela's subsidized oil supplies and other economic aid.

Communist-run Cuba, whose economy was tied to the Soviet

Union for decades and then, when that nation collapsed, was

perilously adrift in the 1990s before Chavez came to power, is

particularly dependant.

It receives more than 100,000 barrels per day of crude from

Venezuela on preferential terms, covering 60 percent of its

energy needs. Last year, Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of

its $20 billion foreign trade - most of that as payment for more

than 40,000 medical staff and other Cuban workers in Venezuela.

While a post-Chavez government led by an acolyte such as

Maduro would be unlikely to end such generosity, it might be

tempted to roll it back at the edges given that many Venezuelans

are not over-enthusiastic at the international solidarity.

Opposition politicians play on that, saying Chavez has

scandalously neglected local needs with politically motivated

foreign patronage. During the recent presidential election, they

showed pictures of a gleaming Venezuelan-sponsored hospital in

the Dominican Republic next to a rundown medical ward at home.

So there is little doubt that should the opposition win a

new vote triggered by Chavez's departure, the aid would dry up.

"We cannot afford these giveaways while Venezuelans still have

so many problems," opposition leader Henrique Capriles has said.

Though Chavez is the undisputed head of the ALBA bloc of

leftist-led nations in the Caribbean and Latin America, his

leadership role has arguably waned given the general preference

for Brazil's "soft left" model over his more radical brand.

"His regional and international influence shrank as the

Venezuelan economy deteriorated and his seemingly endless energy

and vitriol began to fade with his illness," said Peter Hakim,

president emeritus of U.S.-based Inter-American Dialogue.

"Chavez's death will not change the broad dynamics

of regional affairs, but some things will change. Brazil's

predominant role in South America will be reinforced. It will

have less reason to compromise with Venezuela or its allies on

the continent - and it may even feel freer to criticize

Venezuela, whoever ends up in charge."

Speculation is rife over who would inherit Chavez's mantle

as the new firebrand on the block. Ecuador's President Rafael

Correa seems to be the favorite - but insisted it would be


"There are lots of extraordinary leaders in the region," he

said. "But careful, let's not kid ourselves. The historic

changes in our nations are not because of Rafael Correa,

(Argentina's) Cristina Fernandez, (Bolivia's) Evo Morales or

Chavez. It's because our people said 'That's enough!'"

To follow us on Twitter: @ReutersVzla

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, Alexandra

Valencia in Quito, Deborah Charles in Washingon; Editing by

Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes