The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States.
So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.?
I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories.
International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer.
Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:
1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard.
2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.
3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.
4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.
5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt.
8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader.
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.
Am I missing anything?