Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's defeat in a plebiscite designed to prolong his rule and increase his power will inspire important changes not only locally, but also across Latin America.
Until the vote last Sunday, South America was divided into three blocs.
* Populist: powered by oil and gas (Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador), with their Marxist model societies, Nicaragua and Cuba, propped up by Chavez's "petrodollars."
* Social democratic: Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Peru.
* Moderate, with Colombia and Paraguay pro-US and Argentina cautiously pro-Chavez.
After the victory of the "No" forces in Venezuela, Chavez's momentum in Latin America, and thus his ability to impose his political agenda, is bound to dissipate.
Defeat, however, is unlikely to change Chavez. Instead, he will try to regain his power, both in Venezuela and the region, and most likely by upping the ante -- that is, hardening his rhetoric and policies so that his followers' unity is not splintered by his defeat.
But his usual rhetoric of class struggle is unlikely to suffice -- there simply are not enough rich people to hate, while the vote shows that many poor people support democracy. Indeed, votes from Venezuela's poor proved decisive in turning back Chavez's bid for perpetual rule. Many poor did not vote and their abstention was effectively a vote against Chavez.
The Venezuelan opposition will need to recognize this and create a plural, inclusive and democratic front that addresses social issues, the rule of law and the balance of power within society, if they are to keep Chavez at bay.
After Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales is probably the biggest loser of the Venezuelan referendum. Chavez's defeat undermines Morales' effort to impose a similar Constitutional reform that could allow him to be re-elected for an unlimited number of terms.
Moreover, Bolivia is currently isolated in a globalized world, stranded because of gas disputes from its big neighbor, Brazil, the traditional buyer Bolivian gas. Morales had expected to exploit Bolivia's natural resources with the help of Chavez's absolute control of Venezuelan state funds, which the referendum would have given him by abolishing the autonomy of Venezuela's central bank.
Venezuelans and Cubans provide Morales with the levers of his power -- communications, bodyguards, military assistance, transportation and intelligence networks. But if Morales continues on his authoritarian path, he risks fracturing Bolivia not only socially, but also geographically, with secession by the rich provinces and civil war already a possibility.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also seeks constitutional changes to enhance his personal power. Correa has voiced his support for Chavez's notion of "21st century socialism," but he is more pragmatic and articulate than Morales -- and thus unlikely to risk his future on backing Chavez's agenda uncritically.
Correa is, however, in a better position than Morales. Unlike landlocked Bolivia, Ecuador is able to export its oil through its own ports. Moreover, it has a strong private sector and it lacks the angry indigenous peoples and the "Jurassic left" that populates Bolivia. As a result, Correa might gradually pull away from the Chavez axis.
Cuba and Nicaragua, however, are of a different stripe altogether. Their highly ideological regimes are seeking a transition from Marxism to national populism. Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega has returned to power through democratic elections with a slight majority in Parliament. In Cuba, transition is dependent on Fidel Castro's retirement and his substitution by his brother, who relies on a military backing, not political support.
For both regimes, Chavez's support is essential -- Venezuelan "petrodollars" have replaced the financing that Havana and Managua received from Moscow during the Cold War. And, in both cases, the alliance with Venezuela is framed by a wider world alliance against US that includes Iran.
Latin America's social-democratic bloc feels the most relief from Chavez's defeat. Chavez has clashed publicly with Peruvian President Alan Garcia and Chilean President Michele Bachelet. He has meddled in sensitive territorial disputes between Bolivia and Chile, and Ecuador and Peru, and supported a rival to Garcia in Peru's presidential elections.
As for Brazil, it will no longer be necessary for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to "contain" Chavez by keeping him close, which justified admitting Venezuela into MERCOSUR, the Brazil-led regional trade pact. The economic alliance that Lula built with Chavez will now need to be managed with intelligence and pragmatism.
But Lula, as too Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, are clever enough to understand that "Chavismo" will no longer determine Latin America's future. Venezuela's voters have seen to that.
Carlos Perez Llana, a former Argentine ambassador to France, is vice president for international affairs at 21st Century University in Cordoba, Argentina, and a professor at T. Di Tella University in Buenos Aires. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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