Hugo Chavez Legacy Debate Continues About Who He Was, What He Did, What's Next

An image of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez sits on display at a chapel inside Congress in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday,
An image of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez sits on display at a chapel inside Congress in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Chavez, who died Tuesday at age 58, was seen as a hero by some for his socialist programs, his anti-U.S. rhetoric and gifts of cut-rate oil. Others considered him a bully who repressed his opponents. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

In Caracas, Venezuela, as news of Hugo Chavez’ death filtered into the streets, some supporters of the late president and his brand of socialism wept openly. Chavistas, as they are called, benefitted from subsidies that radically altered the lives of the country’s poor.

But in Doral, Fla., a city of about 47,000 home to many Venezuelan expatriates, some of Chavez’s staunchest political adversaries laughed and talked about the news, waiting in long lines to celebrate at Venezuelan restaurants, The Miami Herald reported. They remembered Chavez, 58, for costly manipulations, and tyrannical behavior cloaked in democracy that they said ruined their country.

Venezuelans across the globe have spent two days discussing Chavez, his legacy and the future. They wondered what form of cancer killed him, when and where he died, and what will become of Venezuela now that one of the world’s leading Latin American leftists is gone. The competing faces of Chavez -- socialist reformer who gave voice and opportunity to the poor, and charismatic strongman who used democracy as a disguise -- have been consistent themes of the debate.

“In many ways, both versions of the Chavez story are true,” said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy. “He was a very mercurial personality. At various points, people have implied part of that may have been madness. But there is no question that Chavez’s impact will survive beyond his death.

“You have got a sort of genie that has been let out of the bottle -- a mobilization of the lower class in Venezuela, people who felt that earlier governments ignored them," Purcell continued. "I don’t think that can be contained again.”

Venezuela’s constitution calls for national elections within 30 days.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, is expected to be the Chavismo candidate. Latin American analysts said they expect the opposition will back Henrique Capriles Radonski, who ran against Chavez in October and lost by 11 percentage points. Maduro is favored to win.

“I find it almost impossible to imagine that it won’t be Nicolás Maduro,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. “He is the only person who has officially been given the blessing of Chavez to carry on his legacy.

“Chavismo is very much going to continue without Chavez, but it will never be the same," Arnson continued. “Chavez had a singular ability to keep the movement unified, to keep a direct connection with his mass base and to make decisions. There’s really no known leader in Venezuela who has all of those qualities.”

Even in the U.S., Chavez came in for some praise. Former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) told the Associated Press that he is mourning Chavez's death. Chavez and Venezuela's national oil company, Citgo, donated heating oil that helped the U.S. poor. Kennedy told AP that Chavez helped more than 2 million Americans.

Now, Chavez’s successor must contend with a deeply disgruntled upper class, including expatriates in the United States, and an emboldened poor, said Purcell. The first group is concerned about security and crime, escalating inflation and shortages of goods. The second expects government help ranging from free refrigerators to health care, she said.

The country’s next president also will have to contend with debt racked up by Chavez and with global oil prices that may fall. Venezuela ranks among the world’s largest oil exporters, but imports almost everything else, Arnson said.

"The running joke in Venezuela is it's easier to get whiskey than milk,” Arnson said.

Poverty in Venezuela declined during Chavez' 14 years in office, dropping from nearly 50 percent in 1999 to about 27 percent in 2011, according to the CIA World Factbook. At the same time, an estimated 1 million Venezuelans, mostly from the middle and upper class, left the country. Chavez's social investments have led to better living standards, including increased school enrollment, a substantial reduction in infant and child mortality, and greater access to potable water and sanitation. Some experts, however, question how much of a role government spending played in the improvements.