Indeed, these days Chavez’s influence is waning across the region as Venezuela’s oil-powered economy has gone bust and concerns have been raised about his governing style, which includes the jailing of opponents.
The reversal, ever more pronounced since 2009 when Venezuela’s economy began to founder, has been startling compared with the days when Chavez jetted around South America giving fiery anti-American speeches and inaugurating works funded with petrodollars.
“He’s not flying high like he used to even two years ago,” said Luiz Felipe Lampreia, a former Brazilian foreign minister. “I think he’s losing his capacity to influence people and to lead, even with his own friends.”
Ever so quietly, some of the Venezuelan populist’s biggest projects have been abandoned or mothballed, or have yet to take flight, including a pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina, a South American development bank, housing, highways and a continental investment fund.
It is unclear exactly why some projects have been discarded. Venezuelan government spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
But Chavez’s retreat in the region has come as Venezuela’s economy, dampened by dwindling oil production and hampered by state nationalizations of farmland and companies, contracted 3.3 percent in 2009 and 1.6 percent last year. Billions of dollars in capital have left the country, according to recent U.N. economic data for Venezuela, and the heavy consumer spending of the past has dried up.
The country’s golden goose, the oil industry, is producing 30 percent less oil than it did a decade ago, industry analysts say.
Opinion polls in Latin America also show that the president’s image has been tarnished as Chavez has resorted to a range of policies his opponents call anti-democratic, including attacking the news media and governing with decree powers. Chavez has also forged ever closer ties to iron-fisted rulers, such as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The people of Latin America have a poor appraisal of democracy in Venezuela,” said Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarometro, a Chilean nonprofit policy analysis group that carries out polls across the region. Latinobarometro found in a February report that Latin Americans perceived Venezuela to be less democratic than other countries, assigning a 4.3 rating to Venezuela, with 10 being the most democratic.
When the group asked people to rate leaders in the Americas, Chavez finished second to last in its 2010 report. Even in Bolivia and Argentina, countries with warm relations with Venezuela, fewer than 35 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Chavez. “Evidently, what’s happening with Chavez is he’s not a leader of the region,” Lagos said.