What Hugo Chavez Left Behind

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez smiles to supporters during a campaign rally in Propatria neighborhood, Caracas, Venezuela,
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez smiles to supporters during a campaign rally in Propatria neighborhood, Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 17, 2012. Venezuela's presidential election is scheduled for Oct. 7. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Hugo Chavez has died of cancer, and to the end he refused to say what type of cancer it was. As we reported last May, Chavez had metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that the Venezuelan strongman lived with much longer than he was expected to. That's what our source, who was in a position to know his medical condition and history, told us nine months ago. At the time our source doubted Chavez would live to see the results of the October election. Instead, he lasted another five months.

Chavez was a fighter. A defining moment in his life and 14-year rule occurred at the United Nations back in 2006. Then-President George W. Bush had addressed the General Assembly the day before, and when Chavez took the lectern, the fiery populist couldn't resist jabbing President Bush, a man he described as "the spokesman for imperialism."

"The devil came here yesterday," Chavez told the august body, referring to Bush. "And it smells of sulfur still today."

Chavez couldn't resist leaving a little of his own sulfur behind. A few months back, he suggested that his "imperialist" enemies had somehow infected him with cancer -- an assertion that Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro echoed shortly before the president's demise.

Wild conspiracy theories, often involving the United States, were of course nothing new for the Chavez regime. He built a devoted -- almost religiously faithful -- following among Venezuela's millions of marginalized poor by daring to stand up to challenge the United States' supremacy in the hemisphere. His socialist "Bolivarian Revolution" also created a host of new social programs designed to end widespread poverty- everything from literacy programs, healthcare, and job training. These programs were funded with Venezuelan oil, and they had some success. The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research found poverty in Venezuela dropped by nearly 40 percent during Chavez's first decade in office.

Venezuelan oil -- and Chavez's belligerently anti-American posture -- helped him to become leader of a group of leftist Latin American countries regimes, including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador that defiantly challenged U.S. hegemony. They did so by refusing to cooperate on American counter-narcotics strategies and extending new diplomatic and economic ties to stridently anti-American regimes overseas, including Iran, Syria and Russia. Chavez considered Cuba's aging ex-dictator Fidel Castro a mentor; indeed, he received much of his medical treatment in Havana. And in exchange for oil money, Cuba sent a steady flow of doctors to treat Venezuela's poor and rural communities.

As long as the oil was flowing, it appeared Chavez would be able to hold onto power. But as he grew ill, it appeared that so did his country. In recent years, production of oil -- which accounts for some 40 percent of Venezuela's budget revenue -- began to fall. Crime has soared. Infrastructure has crumbled. And Chavez consolidated power to such a degree that his death leaves a potentially volatile vacuum -- not only in Venezuela, but in the entire Western hemisphere.