Chavez death leaves leadership void in Latin America

The death of Hugo Chavez leaves a void in Latin America's leftist leadership and raises questions about the future of the "petro-diplomacy" which helped put Venezuela on the geopolitical map.

Venezuelan oil money allowed Chavez to respectfully inherit retired Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro's role as the de facto head of an anti-US alliance of left-leaning governments in the region.

Even governments that did not share his taste for populist anti-Western rhetoric and redistributive economics acknowledged his leadership role, and his passing has left analysts scrambling to update the regional political map.

"Chavez will leave a vacuum in the heart, in the history and in the struggles of Latin America," said Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, shortly after his death at the hands of cancer on Tuesday.

Some regional leaders raced immediately to Caracas to pay their respects, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales even walked alongside Chavez's coffin for more than six hours as it trundled through grieving Venezuelan crowds.

Several of his peers, including Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, underscored the "generosity" of Chavez, who for years has used petrodollars to shore up allied governments from the Caribbean to Uruguay.

"Nobody can take his place, no one has the resources and his ambition... although this does not mean the demise of the left in the region," said Michael Shifter, president of Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue.

"The idea of a vacuum is the most appropriate. There is no one in Venezuela or in other countries, either on the left or the right, with his charisma, his story, his strong eloquence and international presence."

But, according to Paulo Velasco, an international relations expert at the Candido Mendes University in Rio, Chavez does leave a number of possible heirs to lead the "anti-imperialist" tendency of his "Bolivarian revolution."

Morales shares this vision, as does Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner.

"Chavez's success was oil and while Correa has some oil, Morales does not. So nobody really can take his place," said Riordan Roett, a Latin America expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

"It was a combination of charisma, pugnacity, in-your-face and ideological fervor combined with his (alliance) with Fidel and Raul Castro.

"Chavez was bigger than life and none of the other candidates on the socialist left really have those characteristics," he added, writing off the chances of Chavez's vice-president Nicolas Maduro assuming a regional role.

Rubens Figueiredo, professor of international affairs at the University of Sao Paulo, said Correa "does not have the same stature as Chavez and Ecuador is a small country," while Venezuela holds the world's biggest oil reserves.

Argentine political scientist Rosendo Fraga said he believed Kirchner could aspire to a regional leadership role. "That would be a paradox. Without Chavez, Cristina could end up being more Chavista than with Chavez around," he noted.

Over the past decade, Chavez has pushed regional integration that excludes the United States, helping create the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

He also founded the ALBA alliance of nine leftist Latin American nations, which have received oil and financial support from Caracas.

With Brasilia's backing, Chavez also managed to secure his country's admission to the South American trade bloc Mercosur last year.

But there are some question marks as to whether Caracas will continue PetroCaribe, the accord under which it supplies oil to Caribbean neighbors at cut-rate prices.

"I think whoever succeeds him will continue this process, to be able to preserve the political alliances that Chavez struck," said Velasco.

But Roett wondered whether, faced with rising inflation, faltering industrial production and a shortage of oil infrastructure investment, Venezuelans want to continue selling cheap oil to allies.

"For a while, petro-diplomacy will be maintained. To stop it would send the wrong signal," Shifter said.

"But I would not be surprised to see the next Chavista government look at ways of gradually reducing assistance to some clients because it cannot afford to finance the entire world."