Venezuelan leader's death leaves oil uncertainty

As Venezuela says goodbye to President Hugo Chavez, the country’s oil future is in flux.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the popular socialist who won 4 terms and overcame an attempted coup, has died from complications to cancer. He will be succeeded by Vice President Nicolas Maduro until a new election can be held, constitutionally required within 30 days.

Chavez’s death leaves big questions about the country’s massive oil reserves. Production efforts are currently down in Venezuela, and have declined by more than 20% since 1998. Although state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is expected to increase that production, it’s likely to have little effect on icy relations between the South American country and the United States.

Vice President Maduro, a Chavez loyalist, is expected to secure victory in the coming, constitutionally-mandated election. He had been endorsed by Chavez for successor, and is considered popular among the electorate and the state military. His opponent will likely be Henrique Capriles, who also ran against Chavez in 2012.

Chavez first took the country’s highest office in 1998 after dissatisfaction with corrupt officials led to sweeping public desire for change. For 14 years, he pursued a political path he called “21st Century Socialism.” His policies were controversial, and debate continues today whether his efforts ultimately helped or hurt the country’s poorest citizens.

Chavez’s use of Venezuelan oil resources is also controversial. Oil initially thrived within the Venezuelan economy under Chavez’s rule. The country is believed to have the largest oil reserves in the world, and Chavez grew PDVSA during his time in office. High oil prices brought billions into the country; meanwhile Chavez began kicking U.S. E&P companies out.

Specific details for the new election are expected in the next few days. The Venezuelan constitution states that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, will assume an interim presidency if a new president is not sworn in.

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