This weekend, Ollanta Humala, a nationalist candidate for president in Peru who had been close to Chavez, said in an interview that it had been “an error” to have allied himself with the Venezuelan leader in his unsuccessful 2006 run at the presidency.
Perhaps most significantly for Chavez, there has been a political shift in Brazil, a country whose sheer size and influence make it critical to Chavez’s goals of regional unity.
Gone is popular president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who had the political capital to publicly embrace Chavez and withstand criticism from the news media and opponents, said Paulo Sotero, a Brazil expert at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Lula’s successor, though, is Dilma Rousseff, a reserved pragmatist focused on an ambitious domestic agenda. Analysts say Rousseff is well aware of Chavez’s poll numbers in Brazil, where a Pew Research Center study in 2010 showed that 13 percent of Brazilians had confidence in the Venezuelan leader.
“Dilma has to operate in the real world and be very sensitive to public opinion, and she knows that Hugo Chavez is not especially popular in Brazil,” said Julia Sweig, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who speaks often with Brazilian officials. “The melodramatic, charismatic style of Chavez is not exactly the style that, I believe, Dilma appreciates.”
Yet it was under Lula that it became clear that the refinery project would move ahead without Venezuela, said Ildo Sauer, a former executive in Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras.
Former officials in this state, Pernambuco, said that Brazil and Venezuela initially negotiated a deal to split costs for the refinery. The Venezuelan leader brought a planeload of children to sing in honor of the new deal, to be named after the 19th-century hero Jose Abreu e Lima, and state officials gave Chavez honorary citizenship, recalled Terezinha Nunes, a former state lawmaker involved in the negotiations.
But with construction underway in 2008, two hurdles arose: reluctance by Petrobras to work with Venezuela and the Venezuelan government’s inability to provide funding, said Sauer and former state officials. Some Brazilian officials who worked on a deal recalled being put off by Chavez’s rhetoric. “His discourse was political, ideological, about the liberation of the Americas, of fighting the forces of imperialism,” said the former governor, Jarbas Vasconcelos. “He imagined commanding a revolution in all the Americas against the United States.”
With construction now in its final stage, there is still a Chavez imprint on the project. “The only thing left from Chavez is the name, Abreu e Lima,” said Nunes.