Changing of the Guard in Latin America

After much speculation, the rumors of Hugo Chávez Frias health can quell, as the Venezuelan Vice President, Nicholás Maduro, finally pronounced him dead. Leaving a legacy of high inflation, food shortages, rampant crime and violence, and political polarization, it's now up to the Venezuelan voters to once again elect their president in a snap election that is to take place within 30 days.

By all accounts the odds on favorite to win this Venezuelan election is the acting VP, Nicholás Maduro, who was appointed the heir apparent by Chavez himself. Yet, even if Maduro is to take the reins over Venezuela, many analysts believe that he does not have the gravitas to lead la revolución. With Chávez's prolonged passing; this leaves more than a vacancy in Venezuela, it leaves a position open at the helm of the Bolivarian Revolution, which is the 'Venecuba' regional power project that captured the hearts and coerced the minds of many in Latin America on a path towards "21st century socialism."

One man that is auditioning for the job is the now three-term President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa Delgado. Perhaps overshadowed by the surprising return of Hugo Chávez to Venezuela last month, the news on Feb. 17 that Rafael Correa won his unprecedented third election in Ecuador with 57 percent of the vote went largely unnoticed. With promises to boost spending for the poor, Correa's popularity soared in the lead up to the Ecuador election, as he capitalized on the surge in world oil prices and the commodity boom in Latin America to initiate a spree of social spending.

Sound familiar?

Rafael Correa follows the same authoritarian, populist model that has made Hugo Chávez the famous figure he is today. Promoting class warfare, manipulating public opinion, and silencing the opposition, have all proven to be successful tactics for the populist playbook of these two modern caudillo leaders. But aside from political tactics, there are more concerning parallels between Venezuela and Ecuador, namely the rise in crime and violence that typifies their authoritarian model. While homicide rates in Ecuador are well below the 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants that Venezuela recorded last year, there has been a significant uptick that, according to the Organization of American States, has led to an 11 percent increase in homicides since Correa first took office. Most of this has been associated with express kidnapping and the rise of drug trafficking in Ecuador, which has prompted some U.S. officials to call it the "United Nations" of organized crime.

Under Chávez, Venezuela has developed a reputation as a criminalized-state with several high-level cabinet officials directly implicated in drug trafficking, leading to their distinction as "drug kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Correa's Ecuador is marching in the same direction. In March of last year there was a semi-high profile case in which a diplomatic pouch and governmental courier was used to ship 40 kilograms of cocaine from Ecuador to Italy.

Ostensibly, there are more similarities than differences between Correa's Ecuador and Chávez's Venezuela, but skeptics will often point to the differences. The most evident being the relatively smaller cash flow of Ecuador's state apparatus to that of Venezuela's petro-induced revenue stream. Even though Ecuador is a petroleum producer, it is nowhere near the two million-plus barrels of oil a day that come out of Venezuela. Part of which was used to finance their regional project, by luring other countries to join the Bolivarian alliance through sweetheart oil deals (petro-Caribe comes to mind). While it is true, Correa does not have the same financial clout that Chavez once had -- he may not need it.

Arguably Chavez didn't truly embark upon his international agenda until about 2004, midway through his second term. At this time, the landscape of Latin America was much different; thus, Chavez along with the Castro's had to invest heavily into creating regional coalitions, such as ALBA, and export financial and medical aid throughout Latin America to help "inspire" a turn to the left in the region. Close to a decade later and billions of dollars in the hole, Rafael Correa does not need to finance a regional effort to this same level. He just needs to maintain the status quo and strategically invest into specific political efforts that can have a multiplier effect.

One such effort is the ongoing "peace process" in Colombia, in which the FARC is engaged in high-level talks with the Colombian government to seek an end to the more than 50 year old conflict. Once a revolutionary guerrilla organization, the FARC is morphing into a political block, powered by its surge in the drug trade over the last twenty years. In fact, it was through the FARC that Chavez would funnel his international clout, as was discovered after close analysis of the captured files of FARC leaders in 2005. Some of these files show that the FARC spent $400,000 to support the presidential campaign of Rafael Correa in 2006.

Watching Correa's positions and involvement with the peace process in Colombia could give an indication of his regional ambitions to lead the Latin American left.

In Venezuela, Chavez invited Iran to launder billions of dollars through their financial system, courted China to lend them billions more, and got $4 billion in arms from Russia. Correa is not far behind, allowing Iran to use its central bank to establish money-laundering schemes, aligning itself with China as one of its principal benefactors, and initiating military transfers with Russia.

Ironically, on the 60th anniversary of the death of the Russian communist strongman, Joseph Stalin, comes the death of the modern day socialist authoritarian Hugo Chávez, creating a power vacuum for revolutionaries in the region. If Rafael Correa wants the job, he will have to ensure that his "Citizens" revolution can pick up where the Chavez inspired "Bolivarian" revolution left off.

Joseph M. Humire is the Executive Director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a global think tank based out of Washington D.C., and co-founder of the Cordoba Group International LLC, a strategic consulting firm that provides research and analysis for U.S. and international clients.