Hugo Chavez was a perpetual thorn in the side of the United States, sounding a constant drumbeat of anti-U.S. rhetoric and urging his Latin American compatriots to forge an independent, Washington-less path. And he drove home his points by force of personality and generosity with Venezuela's oil wealth.
He formed and was the driving force behind regional alliances, was an ideological wellspring for the Latin American left, and exchanged regional influence for oil subsidies, favorable financing and outright donations.
One of the programs that especially endeared him to his neighbors was Petrocaribe, which sent about 10 percent of Venezuelan's crude oil production to 17 regional countries on very favorable terms and allowed payment in goods or services rather than cash.
Now with his passing, the key questions are whether Venezuela will continue its regional largess and its ideological leadership. And some wonder whether the death of the region's provocateur-in-chief would improve U.S.-Latin American relations.
Analysts said they expect if Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez anointed as his successor, wins upcoming elections, the Petrocaribe program will remain in place -- as long as Venezuela's own economic problems don't become insurmountable and the price of oil remains fairly stable.
"I think it's likely to continue and certainly continue in the case of Cuba,'' said Cynthia Arnson, director of Latin American programs at the Wilson Center. Maduro visited Cuba frequently during Chavez's lengthy treatment for cancer and is close to the Cubans.
"There's a real ideological component'' to Venezuela's oil subsidies, she said, and that will make it "very difficult to drop them.''
Member nations pay only 5 to 50 percent upfront for the oil. After a grace period of one to two years, they pay the balance over terms of 17 to 25 years, at a 1 percent interest rate.
An end to such savings could spell disaster for any number of fragile Caribbean and Central American nations, which have used the money to fund everything from new roads and airport expansions, to social programs involving free food baskets for the poor.
In Haiti, for example, the savings from the Petrocaribe program financed 15 percent of Haiti's meager $3 billion annual budget and account for 22 percent of the road and infrastructure projects, said Kesner Pharel, a leading Haitian economist.
"Chavez was the only guy giving money to Haiti without asking questions, and Venezuela is the only country giving credit to Haiti," said Pharel. Without that help, he said, Haiti "will be in trouble."
Of the estimated $2.6 billion Nicaragua received over the past six years, at least some went directly to President Daniel Ortega and his ruling party, making him a very wealthy.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit , whose tiny Caribbean island of Dominica is one of the few English-speaking members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) that Chavez founded with Cuba, said he expected the current relationship to continue.
"I do not expect this friendship to deteriorate or agreement on social and economic initiatives reneged upon; that was simply not the nature or spirit of the relationship that existed between our countries," Skerrit said.
But some analysts question whether Petrocaribe is sustainable.
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