A charismatic leader, Hugo Chávez, has been succeeded by a labor union. Not because Nicolás Maduro, interim president and candidate for the upcoming elections, comes from the labor union world - but because the clan of Chavism, whatever its internal differences, understands the need to form a sort of power-factory-workers union that will keep them in power for the next few years at least. But a company, a sort of Chavism Ltd, cannot replace a legend. At the international level, the fight for the Chávez legacy is on.
The two most apparent contenders, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia (both demographic and economic lightweights) are Bolivarians of a rather occasional sort. When speaking of independence risings, Morales refers more to remote indigenous insurrections than to Bolívar's wars of independence. He proposes to de-Hispanicize Bolivia - hardly the sort of future the Liberator would want for the altiplano . And the Ecuadorian is somewhat alone in what he conceives as his epic of national re-founding. He is not an indigenist, and not much of a Yankee-baiter. And Correa has always kept the door open to Europe. It was Washington's aversion that drew the three Bolivarians together.
There might well arise a third and interesting candidacy: that of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina, who also aspires to re-found the movement of Juan Perón. However, at least since the wave of Caucasian immigration around the turn of the 19th century, Argentina has always seen itself as a prolongation of Europe, a "white man's country" except near its border with Bolivia; and although Peronism set up a tradition of South American working-class rhetoric all of its own, it is still debatable just how Latin American the Argentineans feels themselves to be, and how much they desire confrontation with the United States.
Latin America, more self-aware than ever before, but also more divided, now has a pecking order and balances of power between states: mutatis mutandis , not unlike that which emerged in Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.
With Mexico having remained aloof from the Latin American bunfight for some years (though the new president says he will bring it back in), Brazil has had a free field in which to posture as a great power, while paying emphatic lip service to the other prima donna of the left, Hugo Chávez. The service that Chávez, knowingly or not, has paid to the Brazil of Lula and Dilma Rousseff has been invaluable. The Venezuelan's extreme radicalism enabled Brazil to appear before the world as a force of the well-behaved left, one that the West could talk to. And while Chávez was still on the chessboard, the Bolivarian movement lost two pieces: Manuel Zelaya, ousted by a coup in Honduras (2009) and Fernando Lugo, removed with a veneer of legality in Paraguay (2012). An arrested radicalism served Brazil's aspiration all the better.
If Cristina Fernández can make the bloc's continuity seem credible, there might still be a radicalism to the left of Brazil, almost as noisy as Chávez; but, at the same time, it would revive the long-standing rivalry between Buenos Aires and Brasilia. And the Brazilian posture is that of a natural mediator between the West and Latin American radicalism. Will Cristina Fernández run for another term, and try to play the radical role? Not all the Caucasians in Argentina will be pleased.
If Nicolás Maduro manages to keep the union in power, he will be kept busy trying to revive the gasping economy, and redefining a legacy that has to turn its attention back to the domestic scene. The geopolitical dance at which Chávez was so agile will be shut down for the meantime. And Latin America will remain attentive to the process, nowhere more so than in Cuba, where the Castro regime has little to gain from any of these changes.