03/12/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Latin America prepares for the post-Chavez era

During his presidency, Hugo Chavez talked about setting Venezuela on the path to what he called 21st century socialism.

His vision went beyond his own country to include a Latin America that would be more unified and at the same time more independent from the United States. He would go on to spend tens of billions of Venezuela's petro-dollars trying to make that happen.

Many Latin America experts, both critics and fans of the late president, expect that aspect of Chavez's policy to continue, at least for the short term.

As for Chavez, he took advantage of the skyrocketing price of oil during his first nine years in office not only to help alleviate poverty at home but to fund the creation of new regional organizations, as well as numerous humanitarian aid projects around Latin America, and even in the U.S.

In 2004, a Chavez-inspired organization known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (or ALBA in Spanish) brought together leftist countries to promote what Chavez described as an alternative to neo-liberal trade agreements. The group currently includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and some of the small Caribbean nations

Chavez also oversaw the formation of a handful of transnational business enterprises with the dual purpose of making money and meeting social needs. They include PetroCaribe and the Telesur satellite station, and a bank that provides low interest loans for agricultural and industrial development in ALBA nations.

In Caracas in 2011, 33 nations came together to form CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Unlike the Organization of American States (OAS), CELAC includes Cuba but not Canada and the U.S.

"Much of this couldn't have occurred if it hadn't been for the political agility and bulging oil pockets that were in Hugo Chavez's possession," Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs told CBC News.

The question now, though, is whether both those ingredients will be found in the possession of Chavez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Same as the old boss?

Most observers seem to feel there will be little change in Venezuelan foreign policy under Maduro, who served as foreign minister from 2006 until two months ago.

Roger Burbach, co-author of the just-published Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism, told CBC News that since Maduro is "less bombastic" than Chavez, "his tone may be somewhat different," which may then cause Washington "to think twice about its past policies towards Venezuela and Latin America."

Indeed, some U.S. officials see Maduro "as a deal-maker rather than an antagonist, and some have even praised his affability," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Ray Walser, a former U.S. foreign service officer, now with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, says that he expects Maduro to continue the Chavez foreign policy.

But he also notes that Maduro may find himself more limited if "resource constraints come in the way," meaning that the world price of oil can determine how much of a revolutionary power Venezuela continues to be in Latin America.

Should oil prices drop significantly, the new government may well begin to cut away at the many subsidies that Chavez used to win friends and forge his anti-U.S. alliances with common-minded states.

Venezuela trades "around one third of its oil production at below-market prices" according to Eurasia Group, a consulting firm.

Burbach also argues that the pace of change, both on the international and domestic scene, may slow down, "simply because Chavez, with his charisma, could carry it forward much more rapidly." Burbach directs the Centre for the Study of the Americas, in Berkeley, Cal.

Adds Walser: "Maduro is going to have a lot more trouble getting the kind of respect, fear, attention, whatever, that Chavez got."

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Latin America's 'leader'

For the left-leaning leaders of Latin America, Chavez's departure potentially presents an opening for them to play a bigger role on the world stage, where Chavez had hogged the limelight.

Venezuela's friendly relations with the larger Brazil and Argentina are likely to see little change, according to Burbach.

Chavez deliberately decreased Venezuela's imports from the U.S., to Brazil's benefit. The question now, though, Walser wonders, is "how open Venezuela will be to becoming an economic satellite of Brazil, since they can't seem to produce anything other than oil, they're going to have to get everything from Brazil."

He sees both Argentina and Brazil as pro-Maduro, but for Brazil especially, it's possible "they will say we can exert our senior authority in Venezuela and maybe steer them back towards, a moderate, less confrontational course with the U.S., and dissuade them that some of their more radical ideas are maybe not such a good thing."

Brazil, which has traditionally seen itself playing a leadership role in South America, may now want that to be more prominent.

Walser and others raise the possibility that Ecuador's leader, Rafael Correa, may move to fill Chavez's role at the forefront of the movement for 21st century socialism in Latin America.

Correa, who has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois, was re-elected in February with a strong mandate to carry on the "Citizen's Revolution."

The bottom line for Burbach in all this is that, as far as Venezuela is concerned, "there won't be any backing off of the Latin American unity, the Bolivarian initiative. But there will be a change in pace and a change in the dominance of Venezuela's leadership."

The Cuban connection

The other big regional relationship that will be affected by Chavez's death is that with Cuba, whose Fidel Castro had an almost father-son relationship with the late Venezuelan leader.

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Neither Walser nor Burbach expect an opposition victory in Venezuela's upcoming election, with Maduro's Chavistas expected to maintain office on a large sympathy vote.

But if the more business-oriented opposition were to win, they agree that the biggest impact would be felt in Cuba.

It would be a "major readjustment for Cuba," Burbach says, if Venezuela were to abruptly cut off its subsidized oil supplies, which amounts to about two-thirds of Cuba's consumption. Though Burbach adds that he doesn't think that's a serious possibility.

Maduro himself is very pro-Cuban, according to both Burbach and Walser, and within the Chavista movment, Maduro is seen as the favourite of the Castro leadership.

Walser says that Maduro could be a little more pragmatic than Chavez was with Cuba.

"He actually has some leverage," he suggests, noting that Maduro could point out to the Cubans that Venezuela has actual democratic elections and controls far more resources.