CARACAS (Reuters) - Murals adorning a Caracas slum that has given militant backing to President Hugo Chavez over the years are a virtual pantheon of international radicals.
From Colombia’s FARC guerrillas to the Palestine Liberation Organization and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the images and slogans on teeming slopes above Chavez’s presidential palace hail socialist revolutionaries the world over.
Beside them are tributes to Chavez himself - testimony to the Venezuelan leader’s bid to place himself at the front of global “anti-imperialism” in his ever-controversial 14-year rule.
Now, though, as Chavez battles cancer in a Cuban hospital, his role as garrulous international activist and rich godfather to fellow leftists around Latin America is under threat.
“All Venezuelan revolutionaries, and all people of good faith around the world, are praying for his recovery,” said Greivis Garcia, a 26-year-old mechanic at a vigil for Chavez in the January 23 slum full of revolutionary images.
“We need him so much. And so does the world. But whatever happens, Chavez will live forever, damn it!”
Should he die or be forced to stand down, faraway friends from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad would lose a loud and highly visible supporter.
Chavez has provided some concrete help to such allies - skirting Western sanctions to send a few controversial fuel shipments to Tehran and Damascus, and doling out home-building contracts to Chinese and Belarussian companies.
Yet his international role has been mainly symbolic.
From visiting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2000 to cheering Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi during his final days in 2011; from calling former U.S. leader George W. Bush “the devil” to hailing the veteran Marxist militant known as Carlos the Jackal, Chavez has never lost an opportunity to goad and shock the West, and the United States in particular.
“Venezuela used to be known only for two things: oil and beautiful women. Now, it is famous the world over for just one: Chavez,” said a senior Western diplomat in Caracas.
“He has deliberately courted controversy from day one. It is hard to imagine that booming voice falling silent.”
Chavez has influenced some election campaigns around Latin America in recent years by showing support for leftist candidates and making clear that their victory could bring economic support from his government
Unlike former Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the Cold War, however, Chavez has not committed troops to foreign wars or helped train Marxist guerrillas to fight right-wing governments in their home countries.
He does not have a nuclear weapons program and he has continued to sell oil to the United States even when fiercely criticizing its policies.
In geopolitical terms, he is much more a man of rhetoric than of action.
The quietening of Chavez’s voice might be a relief to Washington and local foes who see him as an embarrassing friend of dictators. But to many, especially round the Third World, he is admired - a bit like Castro - for standing up to U.S. power and daring to say what plenty of others thought.
Chavez is due to start a new, six-year term on January 10, but he is still fighting to recover from his fourth cancer operation in just 18 months. He has named a preferred successor, Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, to be the ruling party’s candidate in an election should Chavez be forced out.
There is little sign that Maduro - a former bus driver, union activist and committed socialist who has faithfully echoed his boss’s views around the globe for the last six years - would change Venezuela’s foreign policies.
Yet without the flamboyant personality of Chavez promoting these policies, the impact would be diminished.
Under the many speculative scenarios - from death to a full recovery - one would be that Chavez takes a Castro-like role, leaving day-to-day affairs to Maduro but opining from behind the scenes as an elder statesman.
In his Latin American backyard, where Chavez has led a resurgence of the left since his own rise to power in 1999, there is far more at stake from a possible end to his rule.
Around the region, smaller nations whose governments are politically allied with Chavez - from Cuba and the Dominican Republic to Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador - have come to rely on Venezuela’s subsidized oil supplies and other economic aid.
Communist-run Cuba, whose economy was tied to the Soviet Union for decades and then, when that nation collapsed, was perilously adrift in the 1990s before Chavez came to power, is particularly dependant.
It receives more than 100,000 barrels per day of crude from Venezuela on preferential terms, covering 60 percent of its energy needs. Last year, Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of its $20 billion foreign trade - most of that as payment for more than 40,000 medical staff and other Cuban workers in Venezuela.
While a post-Chavez government led by an acolyte such as Maduro would be unlikely to end such generosity, it might be tempted to roll it back at the edges given that many Venezuelans are not over-enthusiastic at the international solidarity.
Opposition politicians play on that, saying Chavez has scandalously neglected local needs with politically motivated foreign patronage. During the recent presidential election, they showed pictures of a gleaming Venezuelan-sponsored hospital in the Dominican Republic next to a rundown medical ward at home.
So there is little doubt that should the opposition win a new vote triggered by Chavez’s departure, the aid would dry up. “We cannot afford these giveaways while Venezuelans still have so many problems,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles has said.
Though Chavez is the undisputed head of the ALBA bloc of leftist-led nations in the Caribbean and Latin America, his leadership role has arguably waned given the general preference for Brazil’s “soft left” model over his more radical brand.
“His regional and international influence shrank as the Venezuelan economy deteriorated and his seemingly endless energy and vitriol began to fade with his illness,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of U.S.-based Inter-American Dialogue.
“Chavez’s death will not change the broad dynamics of regional affairs, but some things will change. Brazil’s predominant role in South America will be reinforced. It will have less reason to compromise with Venezuela or its allies on the continent — and it may even feel freer to criticize Venezuela, whoever ends up in charge.”
Speculation is rife over who would inherit Chavez’s mantle as the new firebrand on the block. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa seems to be the favorite - but insisted it would be teamwork.
“There are lots of extraordinary leaders in the region,” he said. “But careful, let’s not kid ourselves. The historic changes in our nations are not because of Rafael Correa, (Argentina‘s) Cristina Fernandez, (Bolivia‘s) Evo Morales or Chavez. It’s because our people said ‘That’s enough!'”
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Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Deborah Charles in Washingon; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray