The March 5 death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez leaves many unanswered questions, including who will succeed the iconic leader and what it means for the region. A cult of personality existed around Chávez and, at least in the short term, the Chávistas "should be able to capitalize on an aura of good feeling regarding [him] and his legacy to have a good chance of winning an election," Baker Institute political science fellow Mark P. Jones, chair of the Political Science Department at Rice University, said in an interview with BBC radio. "But it's going to be much tougher for them to govern without the charismatic personality of Chávez, especially given the economic disaster that is Venezuela today. They're really living on borrowed time ... It's going to be tough to keep the high spending that keeps public opinion supportive of the government."
Oil production in Venezuela, which supplies virtually all of the country's revenues, is declining, Jones added, and "the next president has a monumental task in terms of reconciling the disastrous state of the Venezuelan economy."
One of the real problems that Venezuela faces is that "it produces nothing," Jones said. "Chávez has destroyed industry to such an extent there's almost no domestic production of anything. Most goods need to be imported from abroad, and Venezuela lacks the money to do that, therefore fueling inflation."
Erika de la Garza, program director of the Baker Institute Latin America Initiative, called the charismatic Chávez "a one-of-a-kind leader whose absence will be felt across the entire region." He was a "21st century caudillo," she blogged, referring to a political-military leader in Latin America during the 19th century independence movement.
Chávez's death represents an opportunity for the United States to "reboot" its relations with Venezuela, and a perhaps its relations with all of Latin America, writes Tony Payan, Baker Institute Scholar for Immigration and Border Studies, in a Houston Chronicle op-ed. "This is an opportunity for change, and it must be seized with thoughtfulness and diplomacy."