Can Rafael Correa fill Hugo Chavez’s shoes?

By Risa Grais-Targow

With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gravely ill and the Castro brothers in their twilight years, debate has begun to focus on the future of Chavez's brand of leftist politics in Latin America. There is widespread speculation as to which leader might assume Chavez's role in the region, even though his influence has arguably been on the decline. Among the possibilities bandied about is Ecuador's President Rafael Correa. Correa easily won a third term in the Feb. 17 elections, beating his closest opponent, Guillermo Lasso, by more than 30 percentage points. Correa also expanded his base of support in the National Assembly, where his Alianza Pais looks likely to achieve an absolute majority. Correa, like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, owes much to Chavez, who served as a model for socialist policies, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to his regional allies. While Correa may aspire to use his strong mandate to assume leadership of the Chavez-created Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, his ability to do so will be limited.

First and foremost, Correa simply lacks the resources. Ecuador is a relatively small country (its GDP is about 20 percent of Venezuela's), and while it is a major oil producer, it does not boast the quantity of oil that can sustain Chavez-like regional "petro-diplomacy" and aid programs. Moreover, in the likely event that Chavez's chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, wins a new election, there is no evidence to suggest that he doesn't want to fill Chavez's regional leadership role himself. So far, Maduro's actions suggest that he will represent policy continuity. He is close with the Cuban regime and has imitated Chavez's playbook thus far, including cracking down on the private sector and suggesting that foreign agents were planning an assassination attempt against him.    

That doesn't mean that Correa won't try. He boasts much of Chavez's charisma, and has taken every opportunity to vault himself, and Ecuador, onto the international stage, typically at the expense of US policy interests. This has been particularly true since Chavez first became ill in June 2011. Correa boycotted last year's Summit of the Americas in protest of Cuba's absence, and more recently made headlines by granting Julian Assange political asylum. While Venezuela grapples with its internal transition challenges, rather than its regional agenda, Correa could heighten his anti-imperialist rhetoric. Regardless, however, Correa's decisive victory-along with the endurance of Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua, and more center -- left governments in Peru and Brazil -- suggests that the left in Latin America has staying power, with or without Chavez.

Risa Grais-Targow is an associate in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.