In Latin American politics, dying can be a shrewd career move. Just look at Simón Bolívar. During his lifetime his actual political accomplishments were decidedly mixed; his efforts to build a united South American republic ultimately gave way to disunion, dictatorship, and personal despair. But his demise made him far more popular than he had ever been in life. Today Colombians, Ecuadoreans, and Panamanians are all happy to consider him one of their own. And, in his native Venezuela, he is considered practically divine.
When it comes to worshiping at the altar of Bolívar, no one has ever been able to outdo President Hugo Chávez, the man who has singlehandedly dominated Venezuelan politics for the past 14 years, and exercised considerable influence over the rest of the region. But his recent disappearance to Cuba for medical treatment, and the lingering mystery surrounding his persistent cancer, has many South Americans wondering about his legacy. Can Chávez's party -- and his aspirations for international revolution -- survive without him? What would chavismo without Chávez look like?
Recent Latin American history offers some clues. Bookending the spectrum of symbolic possibilities are two celebrated Argentinians with very different regional legacies: Juan Domingo Perón and Ernesto "Ché" Guevara.
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President of Argentina from 1946 until 1955 (and again, briefly, in the early 1970s), Perón remains a powerful political force even today. Following a period of brutal military rule by those who overthrew Isabel, his widow and successor (not to be confused with his earlier wife, the famous Evita), a revitalized Perónist platform emerged that was led by original supporters of the former president. Argentina's two most recent presidents have been Perónists, and Perón's brand of corporate nationalism remains a core principle of the party today.
Meanwhile, the Marxist firebrand Guevara, although best known for his role in the 1958 Cuban Revolution, was very much a globalist. For twenty years until his violent death in Bolivia, he crisscrossed the globe fomenting armed revolution in dozens of individual countries. In death his memory became iconic, his image ubiquitous. The quintessential idealist martyr, Ché remains a powerful symbol but a relatively empty one: an ideological dead end. Following his demise, his closest allies back in Cuba were sidelined or purged. His policy priorities (such as assisting global Marxist revolution through violent guerilla movements) have since become not only irrelevant but almost entirely disconnected from the image of the man himself.
Throughout his long career, Chávez has mirrored both of these famous figures at various moments. Like Perón, Chávez has presented himself as the common man's president, channeling streams of domestic discontent and class tension through his own larger-than-life personality. Yet Perónism was always a decidedly nationalistic movement, tailoring its brand of populism to unique characteristics of Argentinian national identity in ways the more globally minded Chávez has never seen fit to mimic.
True to the Guevara spirit, Chávez has chosen instead to push for international revolution first, while pursuing the interests of Venezuela second. In 1999, when mudslides leveled huge swaths of the Venezuelan coast, killing tens of thousands, Chávez eschewed offers of American aid on principle. And while ever-rising oil prices (crude was at $8 per barrel when Chávez was first elected) have allowed for greater domestic social spending, much of this wealth has likewise gone towards flashy (some say unnecessary) displays of international largesse.