CARACAS, Venezuela, July 2 (UPI) -- The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was known for lavishing gifts of cheap oil on neighbors sympathetic to either his populism or strident anti-American rhetoric.
With Chavez gone, many recipients of that largess are wondering if his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, will keep the aid, said to be worth millions of dollars, flowing.
Chavez died of cancer in March but his popular sway over Venezuela helped Maduro, the handpicked inheritor of Chavism, to win election.
Seen to be more pragmatic and less eloquent than his departed mentor, Maduro has wavered between bouts of Chavism and practical reforms as he battles an ill-concealed legacy of governmental neglect that has oil-rich Venezuela fighting to surface out of deep recession. It's a record matched only by crisis-ridden oil exporters of West Africa.
Can Maduro continue Chavez's generous oil diplomacy in the Caribbean and Central region the late firebrand founded as Petrocaribe, a loosely defined union of states dependent on Venezuela for cheap oil? This was a question paramount when the Petrocaribe region's leaders met in Managua, Nicaragua, in late June.
Venezuela supplied more than 100,000 barrels of oil each day to Petrocaribe member states in 2012, despite a gathering crisis in Caracas over Chavez's failing health. What's less clear is how much Venezuela got paid on terms ranging from long-term deferment of payment to oil prices below market trends.
At the Managua meeting, Venezuela led a call to expand Petrocaribe into an economic union with goals beyond the supply of cheap oil. At an earlier May summit in Caracas, Maduro said Petrocaribe could become a trade bloc to complement and not compete with other cooperation pacts already in existence.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said a number of working groups created at the summit would explore collaboration in areas "beyond the false concepts of free trade." Ortega said "with these steps we are attacking extreme poverty, creating a regional brotherhood with a trade zone to confront the problems facing Latin America and the Caribbean."
At the May summit, Venezuelan Oil and Mining Minister Rafael Ramirez called for expansion of Petrocaribe beyond its initial focus of providing oil to member states at favorable prices. It's a proposal that will allow member states to continue to strengthen Petrocaribe. Ramirez said.
A key question not discussed in public at the two summits was the proportion of cash contributions pledged by Venezuela and other member countries. Petrocaribe members include Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Venezuela.