COLUMN - With Chavez gone, what of 'Chavismo'?

(Michael Shifter is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Michael Shifter

March 7 (Reuters) - "The End of the Chavez Era".

That was the headline on Colombia's major newspaper, El Tiempo, the day after Hugo Chavez's death.

True, Chavez's controversial and colorful 14-year rule has ended, and Venezuela has lost a president who evoked uncommonly intense passions among followers and detractors. Venezuelans will not easily forget a leader who, for better or worse, was the consummate showman and left an indelible mark on a highly polarized society.

Yet Chavez also followed in a long line of caudillos, or strongmen, who have been a notable feature in Latin America's political history. Indeed, Venezuela has had its fair share. As the acute observer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's Nobel Prize-winning writer, noted soon after Chavez's 1998 election, the new president's seductive rhetoric recalled so many of the region's other leading political figures - but he could well end up as yet another Latin American despot.

The difference, of course, was that Chavez, unlike his predecessors - indeed, unlike any other Latin American leader - had a big checkbook, thanks to the immense windfall he derived from spectacular oil price increases since he took office (to more than $100 a barrel from less than $10).

For Chavez, Venezuela was too small. Given his outsized ambitions, he needed a larger stage - not just the continent, but the world - to form coalitions of like-minded nations and consolidate and project his power.

Chavez not only pursued this course with rare audacity in the region - some 18 nations formed part of his Petro Caribe scheme that benefited from oil at cut-rate prices - but also globally.

As early as 2000, in defiance of United Nations sanctions, Chavez visited and lent support to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. He also cozied up to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and other assorted Washington adversaries.

With his largesse, Chavez sought to build a constituency even in the United States. He provided discounted home heating oil through CITGO, the subsidiary of the state-owned company PDVSA, to the poor in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and elsewhere.

Chavez's megalomania meant that he controlled all power in Venezuela. He was the only person who could make key decisions. The result was that institutions such as the judiciary were undermined and hollowed out. As Chavez supporters rightly pointed out, though, these institutions were not that strong or autonomous to begin with. Even the subject of succession was not contemplated until Chavez's illness became so severe three months ago.

Still, Chavismo, the movement Chávez created and led, will probably survive for some time - if in a diminished form, without its singular dominant and charismatic figure.

The most likely scenario is that Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's designated successor and current vice president, will win the presidential election, in the context of enormous sympathy for Chávez.

He can be expected to refer frequently to the "great leader" and invoke Chavez to rally support, as has been done in Argentina with Juan Perón and, now, by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner with her late husband Nestor, the former president.

Maduro will also be helped by a markedly demoralized and fractured opposition, which suffered two consecutive electoral defeats last year. There is no reason why the sensibilities and positions cultivated during the Chavez era - and which drew on frustrations with long-term social inequalities and resentments against the United States - cannot be sustained.

At a wider regional level, however, the "Chavez era" had been in decline long before the Venezuelan president's death. The zenith of Chávez's appeal was five or six years ago, when he was politically popular. He also benefited from having the perfect foil for his antics in the widely disliked U.S. President George W. Bush.

There is no clearer measure of how Chavez's stock dwindled after 2006 than the striking change of heart of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala.

In 2006, Humala ran for the presidency as an unabashed Chavez admirer, campaigning on a radical program in line with the tenets of his Bolivarian revolution. Humala lost that election. But he came back to win the presidency in 2011, distancing himself from Chavez and embracing a moderate, pragmatic stance. Humala's government now adheres closely to what Chavez derided as "neo-liberal" policies. It can scarcely be described as leftist.

It is no accident that Humala's political advisers during the 2011 campaign had previously worked for Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, a hero to much of the Latin American left.

During Lula's two administrations (2002-2010), Brazil made great advances, emerging as a global power. Lula managed to combine economic growth with social equity, including dramatic reductions in poverty levels - all within a democratic framework and rule of law.

For most of Latin America, those elements became the formula for success, and might be described as the "Brasilia consensus." The 1990s "Washington consensus," with its potent free-market policies, left out the crucial social equity piece.

Whatever one might think about Chavez and his legacy, though he governed 14 years, today no one in the region is talking about the "Caracas consensus."

( Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.) (Michael Shifter)