The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has the potential to birth a dramatic change in his oil-rich country's relationship with the United States. But it may take years to materialize, if it ever does.
Much will depend on how far the Obama administration is willing to go to encourage Chavez's successor. Before Chavez's death Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro had implied that the United States had somehow given the president cancer.
That absurd assertion contrasts with foreign policy analysts' assessment that if Maduro succeeds Chavez, he won't try to be the same type of revolutionary leader, and he may seek closer ties with America. As evidence, they note meetings Maduro had in November with Roberta Jacobson, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for Latin America.
Moving closer to the United States may require Venezuela to break, or at least loosen, its bond with Cuba - something Chavez, who worshipped Fidel Castro, wouldn't do. He saw the architect of Cuba's revolution as not just a mentor, but a father figure.
Castro milked the relationship for all it was worth. As Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro put it in a New Republic article Wednesday, "tens of billions of petrodollars" from Venezuela "propped up the last bastion of totalitarianism in the Western Hemisphere long past its sell-by date."
But times are changing in Cuba, too. Fidel Castro is no longer in charge, and his 81-year-old brother, Raul, says his current five-year term as president, his second, will be his last. His handpicked heir, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52, is expected to go beyond Raul's modest steps toward free enterprise, allowing the buying and selling of private property and lifting travel restrictions.
Chavez's death may have many Americans, if not most, thinking "good riddance," but he also had admirers in this country, including a number of political liberals in the film industry who admired his life story. "I lost a friend I was blessed to have, and poor people around the world lost a champion," said actor Sean Penn.
Also mourning Chavez's death was former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, who said the Venezuelan leader had helped nearly two million Americans through Kennedy's heating-assistance charity, Citizens Energy, which distributes heating oil to low-income families. Venezuela donated 200 million gallons of heating oil over an eight-year period.
Critics said Chavez used the heating-oil program as propaganda to portray President George W. Bush's administration as unsympathetic to the poor. Chavez was indeed a master at manipulating attitudes. He used all forms of media to project a heroic persona while keeping an iron grip on power.