Post-Chavez: More of the Same for Venezuela

Wily leader may still lead from beyond the grave, experts say.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gives a press conference at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 that Chavez has died. Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is dead, taking with him what many experts consider one of the most lasting legacies of South American leadership.

But his death does not necessarily signal the end of his reign. The power that the former army officer wielded in his native country will endure through successors who will likely capitalize on his ability to appeal to the downtrodden.

[PHOTOS: The Life of Hugo Chavez]  

The world now watches to see what will happens to the South American country amid burgeoning foreign policy problems toward Russia, China and Iran.

"Chavez was able to do something that most political figures could not do. He has inspired a movement under his name that is going to endure in South America," says Bob Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and expert on South American security studies at the Center for a New American Security.

"It's going to be a long, long memory for many Venezuelans. And the opposition party, even if it wins, is going to have to learn to work with that legacy and move very cautiously and slowly as it moves to put Venezuela back into a democratic framework," he says.

[IN PICTURES: Venezuela Mourns Chavez]   

Killebrew points to a new and subversive threat out of Venezuela—a suspected collaborator with drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico—that will likely shape its relationship with the United States in the near future.

"Terrorism and illicit drugs are coming together and it's getting harder and harder to separate, for example, the activities of the Mexican drug cartels and the activities of undercover Iranian agents," he says.

The state of Venezuela under Chavez's rule has supported increased instances of Iran and drug cartels working together, says Killebrew, providing a platform for these organizations to operate.

Many experts believe Vice President Nicolas Maduro will call for an election quickly and will be chosen to succeed Chavez. The White House and State Department declined to comment on the worsening condition of Chavez on Tuesday prior to his death, but did call for transparent, clear and democratic elections.

The democratic institutions that governed the country from the late 1950s through Chavez's election in 1999 remain fresh in most Venezuelans' minds, Killebrew says, but have been fractured by Chavez's implementation of a socialist system.

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A return to democracy in Venezuela could improve its strained relationship with the United States, he adds, which is largely a product of Chavez's anti-American rhetoric and not inherent to the wishes of the Venezuelan people.

But Venezuela likely won't walk away from it's relationships with Russia, China and Iran says Karen Hooper, director of Latin American analysis for private security firm Stratfor. Russia will continue to sell arms to Caracas and all of these countries remain interested in Venezuela's rich oil reserves.

"Venezuela needs the financing from China. China needs the oil. It's a good marriage, but it also depends on China's ability to get the oil it wants," she says. Venezuela will also feel pressure to sell the same oil to the United States for a higher price.

The memory of Chavez—and those who associate with him—remains genuinely popular going in to the next election.

[MORE: Chavez Stricken With Cancer]

"Free, open and fair are all very interesting concepts, but Chavez won the election and nobody disputed it wasn't free, open and fair," says Hooper. Chavez's social distribution policies may have harmed the local economy, but they have garnered great support, she says.

"Sympathy of anyone associated with the deceased tends to have an impact on voter behavior," says Hooper. "Moduro will likely be able to capitalize on that, and I don't think we should expect anything differently."

Venezuela's close ties with Russia, Iran and China have distanced itself from the United States in the last decade. Maduro's decision to inexplicably expel two U.S. embassy personnel shortly before Chavez's death indicates he plans to continue castigating the United States as "the regional bogeyman," says Hooper.