Latin America’s politics looking a lot like Chavez
So who do you think is on the cover of the January/February issue of prestigious “Foreign Policy” magazine? If you guessed that the publication’s Man (or Person) of the Year is Venezuela’s autocratic anti-American dictator wannabe, President Hugo Chavez, you win the Grand Prize – a one-way trip to Caracas, where I lived and worked for seven years during a previous life.
The way Foreign Policy sees it, “Chavez is refashioning dictatorship for a democratic age” in the 21st century, which is discouraging news for the United States and other western democracies. “As the 20th century drew to a close, Latin America finally seemed to have escaped its reputation for military dictatorships (and) the democratic wave that swept the region starting in the late 1970s appeared unstoppable,” wrote Javier Corrales, an associate professor of government at Amherst College in Massachusetts. But Venezuelans elected Chavez as president in 1998 and he soon became “the poster boy for many leftists worldwide” with his “fiery anti-American, anti-neoliberal rhetoric.”
Corrales warned that Chavez’s “leadership formula may inspire like-minded leaders in the region. And his celebrity status means that even strongmen outside Latin America may soon try to adopt the new Chavez Look.” This process is already under way with the recent election of charismatic coca (as in cocaine) farmer Evo Morales as president of Bolivia. Morales has vowed to legalize coca cultivation when he takes office on Jan. 22, and just last Tuesday he arrived in Caracas aboard a Cuban airliner – from Havana, where he met with Fidel Castro — and promptly joined Chavez to denounce “neoliber- alism and imperialism” (i.e. the U.S.).
According to Corrales, Chavez has engineered a bloodless coup — he attempted the other kind a few years ago as an Army colonel – by 1) polarizing society, pitting rich against poor, 2) spreading the wealth selectively, using Venezuela’s oil riches to pay off his supporters, 3) allowing the bureaucracy to decay by concentrating all power in the presidency and creating rubber-stamp legislative and judicial branches and 4) antagonizing the United States and its allies with his inflammatory rhetoric.
What do I mean by “inflammatory rhetoric?” Well, Chavez refers to President Bush as “Mr. Danger” and has called him a “killer,” a “madman,” and a “crazy man.” Now even if you’re a Bush-hater, you have to acknowledge that such intemperate language is over-the-top. The Venezuelan strongman has also turned his rhetorical guns on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, labeling her “a true illiterate” after intimating that she dislikes him because he wouldn’t sleep with her. Por favor! (Please!).
The Washington Post painted a clear picture of the Chavez regime in a recent editorial by noting that more than three-fourths of Venezuela’s voters chose not to go to the polls in a Dec. 4 election for a rubber-stamp National Assembly despite threats that government workers would lose their jobs if they didn’t vote. And one-fifth of those who did turn out cast blank ballots rather than supporting pro-government candidates. “The result is that Mr. Chavez’s supporters, with a mandate from 20 percent of the electorate, will occupy all 167 seats in the Assembly,” the Post reported.
Organization of American States officials have suggested that Venezuelan democracy might be rescued through “a frank, inclusive and good-faith dialogue” between Chavez and opposition parties aimed at “strengthening the principles of separation, independence and balance of power” – exactly what Chavez doesn’t want. So that’s not going to happen.
The Post’s chief Latin America correspondent, Jackson Diehl, predicted last week that “U.S. relations with Latin America, which plunged to their lowest point in decades in 2005, will get still worse in 2006.” Diehl based his dire prediction on recent elections in the hemisphere and recalled that President Bush “was jeered by demonstrators and taunted by Chavez” at a regional summit at Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November.
Chavez was joined by Argentina’s leftist President Nestor Kirchner in his criticism of Bush, the U.S. and free-market trade policies. And with Morales’ electoral victory in Bolivia, Diehl speculated that the 79-year-old Castro “must believe he is finally seeing the emergence of the totalitarian bloc that he and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara tried and failed to create in the 1960s.”
Other leftistÐpopulist politicians will compete for power in elections taking place later this year in three key Latin America nations: Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico. “By the end of this year a Morales imitator could be president of Peru,” Diehl wrote, “and Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista movement could once again control Nicaragua.” Even worse, and right next door, “Mexico could be led by Andres Manuel LopezÐObrador, a socialist who has never visited the U.S.”
Diehl observed that Washington, preoccupied by international terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere in the turbulent Muslim world, has yet to develop “a broad strategy for containing Chavez’s political and economic offensive, which now includes a regional television network and an energy consortium.” Although “Latin America poses no serious threat to U.S. security,” he added, much of the hemisphere will be “an unfriendly place for liberal ideas, free markets and the United States” as long as Castro, Chavez and their new friends remain in power.
So that’s what’s going on in Latin America as the New Year gets under way. It isn’t a pretty picture and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, let’s hope the Bush administration gets a handle on Iraq so it can pay more attention to festering situations closer to home.
n Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.