The death of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez may spark an internal battle between socialist leaders and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah that have long served as Chavez allies, according to a foreign policy expert.
Chavez, who died late Tuesday of cancer at age 58, was described as a unique leftist dictator during a conference call Wednesday sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
Chavez both espoused a strict socialist dogma and courted Muslim extremists in Iran and elsewhere, providing them safe haven in Venezuela where groups such as Hezbollah have even had sway in government.
Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel fervor increased during Chavez's reign. Venezuela's small Jewish community grew to live in fear of Chavez as he denounced Israel at the behest of the Iranians.
One expert now doubts Chavez’s socialist successors will continue the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, however.
"I don’t think Chavez’s successors would have any interest in continuing that" relationship, said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
"But how do you extricate" a known terrorist organization? Noriega asked.
An already entrenched Hezbollah could fight hard to retain its place in Venezuela, Noriega said.
"There are Hezbollah cells that not only operate in Venezuelan territory, but the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan economy has become an important tool for Iran to launder money and evade sanctions," he said. "They’re not going to give that up easily."
"Iranians will try to maintain a presence" in the oil-rich South American province, he added.
"Right now," Noriega said, "they’re probably sort of hunkering down and holding on for as long as they can."
U.S. leaders could entice Venezuela’s new power brokers to break ties with Iran.
"I think if the U.S. is serious in it’s diplomacy, we could put this on the table as something that needs to be addressed—send Hezbollah packing and [end] the relationship with Iran … as a precondition for normalizing relations."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered condolences soon after Chavez died.
"Hugo Chavez is a name known to all nations. His name is a reminder of cleanliness and kindness, bravery … dedication and tireless efforts to serve the people, especially the poor and those scarred by colonialism and imperialism," Ahmadinejad said in a statement posted online.
"I offer my condolences to all nations, the great nation of Venezuela, and his respected family over this tragic event," Ahmadinejad added.
Noriega also said during the call that even Chavez confidants are scrambling in response to his death. This could lead to infighting and government distress as leaders jockey to replace Chavez.
He "kept even his followers in his inner circle in the dark about his terminal situation," Noriega said. "So they haven’t discussed how to hold power. … This will be complicated."
Liberal outlets such as the Huffington Post have mourned Chavez’s death and discussed his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as a likely successor.
However, Noriega disputed that assumption.
"You can’t take anything for granted today," said Noriega, noting that the only certainty in Venezuela is looming instability. "For example, most of the major media are referring to Maduro as the natural successor and legal successor but that isn’t necessarily the case."
The Venezuelan opposition has its best opportunity in years to make in-roads among the electorate, which supported Chavez but has expressed less support for his government in general.
Maduro does not possess the same cult of personality that Chavez had, Noriega said.
"Maduro has underwhelmed people in the last 90 days when he’s emerged in Chavez’s absence," he said. "He hasn’t grown into the role of the successor."
"Maduro has not projected the kind of charisma and command that some thought he might be able to do," he said.
Given this, "anything can happen" if elections actually take place in the coming weeks.