Chavez didn't get everything he wanted. Among his unfulfilled dreams was the Pipeline of the South, a $25-billion, 5,000-mile conduit for oil that would
have run from the Orinoco River to Patagonia. Brazil objected. Even a slightly more modest idea, a pipeline to Cuba, never got off the ground. A South
American Development Bank project met a similar fate -- inaugurated in 2009 this time with Brazil's support, but in the end, no country, not even Venezuela
itself, put up capital to launch the venture. Likewise, visions of continental-scale housing, highways and other investment stalled before they began.
But if Chavez lost on some big-ticket items, he can take at least partial credit for helping redefine South America's institutional architecture. MERCOSUR,
South America's big trading bloc, is a different beast than it was before Venezuela became a full member. Whether Brazil's strategy to push for Venezuelan membership in MERCOSUR was the product
of realpolitik and commercial interests or sheer ideology is up for debate. Nor, contrary to conventional wisdom advanced by some observers, has Chavez blown up UNASUR, an institution that has helped ward off conflict in Bolivia,
Ecuador, and Colombia. With respect to South America, even despite his bombastic display at summits -- the 2005 Mar de Plata circus comes to mind -- the pressure was on Chavez to play by the neighborhood's evolving rules, not
ALBA, the nine-member association of quasi-likeminded "Bolivarian" countries, is of course the big Chavez victory, one that might well give future
Venezuelan presidents -- whatever their political leanings -- continued influence in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean. It is safe to say that
Caracas spent billions on ALBA development projects, especially those related to oil. Petrocaribe
gave ALBA members, along with five other participating countries, preferential pricing on Venezuelan oil imports, payable over 25 years at 1 percent
interest. Whatever the impact in the form of political patronage, cash transfers from Venezuela offset the budgets of central governments, producing other
direct benefits -- in the form of new roads, health-care, and energy grids. After visiting Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, a former head of the United States
Southern Command told me that he was surprised to see such tangible impact from Venezuela's largesse.
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Chavez came of age during the Cold War, when, to avoid a repeat of the 1959 Castro revolution, the United States deployed throughout Latin America its
considerable arsenal to keep the left weak, through covert operations, counterinsurgency, coups, or meddling with elections. During this period, between
the 1950s and the late 1980s, unelected generals ran most of Latin America, with American blessing, training and support. At the time, Venezuela (and
Colombia) stood out to a self-satisfied Foggy Bottom and to some political scientists as reassuring exceptions to South America's right-wing military
regimes: twin poster children for democracy, albeit elite-brokered, shallow, and one that coexisted with extreme inequality and poverty -- not to mention
disfranchisement of poor majorities. Although solidly ensconced in the barracks, a nationalist strain in Venezuela's military seeded Chavez' skepticism
about American power, which in turn became in his view inseparable from Washington's entrenched backing of Venezuela's elite.