Hugo Chávez takes his angry, anti-American paranoia on the road
Not content to bash the United States from his usual soapbox—the presidential palace and the radio and television concern he controls in Caracas—Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez has taken the show on the road. He embarked on a unique world tour last week, taking in countries that are, by turns, either uneasy in their relations with the West or downright pariah states and sworn anti-democratic enemies. It was, many analysts say, an effort to make a menacing authoritarian mark on the global stage.
This week, President Chávez, a former soldier, is in Belarus and Russia for a tour complete with photo ops with Alexander Lukashenko—the man the U.S. calls “Europe’s last dictator”—and Vladimir Putin. Both Lukashenko and Chávez claim the United
States is trying to overthrow their governments. “The jaws of imperialism and hegemony have clenched over Belarus,” Chávez said Tuesday. “Our countries should keep their hands on their knives.” In Moscow, Chávez is signing a deal to buy US$1 billion worth of military hardware, including 30 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and 30 military helicopters to go with last year’s purchase of 100,000 assault rifles.
After Moscow, the populist leader is off to visit Iran, where he’s likely to vent a great deal of his trademark anti-American rhetoric and condemn Israel for what he calls its “invasion”of Lebanon. Vietnam, Mali and perhaps Senegal will round out his world tour. North Korea will be booked soon, but as he told reporters before he set off in July, he just couldn’t squeeze it in this trip.
Over the past few years, Chávez has worked hard to spread his left-wing, anti-American message in South and Central America. He has tried to influence elections outside his
borders and has recently inserted himself into Mercosur, the South American trading bloc. He has also promised to pay off the foreign debts of many countries in the region, and has even financed cultural events to get his message across. In February, he donated nearly a million dollars to a Rio de Janeiro samba club that took as its theme for the city’s annual carnival parades the Bolivarian revolution. The parade floats featured images of Simón Bolívar, Fidel Castro and “Che” Guevara, boldly and valiantly standing firm against the U.S.
In taking on the world, Chávez says he wants to see major reforms at the United Nations. More specifically, he wants Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, to get one of the rotating seats on the Security Council. “We have said in the past that it is necessary to democratize the United Nations and eliminate the power of the veto that belongs to a small group of countries who care nothing for the principles of democracy,” he
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told reporters last month. Clearly, Chávez, backed by nearly US$30 billion a year in oil revenues, sees himself as a saviour. He’s now trying to make common cause with the Arab world against the U.S. But just how influential, or threatening, is he?
Mexican political analyst and former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, writing in Foreign Affairs, worried that his alliances with other leaders in Latin America could result in a return to “old-fashioned populism.” “He is attempting, with some success, to split the hemisphere into two camps: one pro-Chávez, one pro-America,” Castañeda said. Chávez seemed to admit as much when he noted that there is a great ideological conflict—on one side, those who defend Washington’s consensus, and on the other side, those who propose great change.
But in Latin America at least, his influence looks to be waning. He may have helped leftist Evo Morales become president of Boli-
via earlier this year, but the latest test case, Mexico, proved a different matter. Before the campaign for the July 2 presidential vote began in earnest, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing former mayor of Mexico City, had a brisk lead, and was being touted as the easy winner. But in March, when his right-wing opponent Felipe Caldéron began running a series of television ads linking López Obrador to Chávez, his lead dropped by seven points. The ads juxtaposed some of López Obrador’s speeches and those of Chávez. In one, López Obrador criticized the current Mexican president, Vicente Fox, and told him to “shut up.” This was contrasted with a video clip of a Chávez speech in which he tells the Mexican president, “Don’t mess with me, sir.” Caldéron was soon leading in the polls, and would go on to a narrow victory.
In Peru, Chávez’s strong support of Ollanta Húmala contributed to his loss in the June 4 runoff vote against right-wing candidate and former Peruvian president Alan Garcia. Húmala, a firebrand nationalist, closely aligned himself with Chávez during the election campaign. At one point, Chávez stepped in to call Garcia, whose turbulent presidency from 1985 to 1990 left Peru racked by Shining Path terrorism and on the verge of financial collapse, “a thief.” His meddling got so out of control that both countries withdrew their respective ambassadors.
“Mr. Chávez, learn to govern democratically,” said outgoing Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo during the thick of the diplomatic row. “Learn to work with us. Our arms
are open to integrate Latin America, but not to destabilize it with your chequebook.” In his victory speech, Garcia said the win was a boost to Peru’s “independence and national sovereignty.” The people of Peru, he added, “have defeated the efforts by Mr. Hugo Chávez to integrate us into the militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America.”
Why did the Chávez rhetoric, which champions the poor, backfire in a country where the majority of the population lives below the poverty line? Many believe the answer lies in energy policy, and more specifically in the anger over Evo Morales’s May 1 nationalization of oil and gas reserves in Bolivia— a move Chávez is said to have encouraged. Peruvians may well have felt they had too
much to lose by putting yet another Andean Chávez protege in power, who would tamper with the country’s oil and gas wealth. “It didn’t work with Peru because the biggest beneficiary of the gas revenues are the indigenous peoples of the province of Cuzco who have never seen so much wealth in their entire existence,” says Annette Hester, a Calgary-based economist and senior associate at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies. “I don’t think they wanted to jeopardize that.”
But Chávez seems undaunted. He is very much a presence in Nicaragua these days, where the former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega is running for election in November. In April, Chávez brokered a deal to win support for the Sandinistas by supplying cheap oil to Nicaraguan municipalities. Under the deal, Venezuela will accept 60 per cent payment for the oil within 90 days of shipment, while the remaining 40 per cent is to be paid off over 25 years, at one per cent interest. “Everyone knows that I would like to see Daniel Ortega as the president of Nicaragua,” said Chávez. “Is that interfering? No, not at all. Let them accuse me of meddling.”
Chávez is inserting himself in regional politics and economics in other ways. On July 21, Venezuela became a member of Mercosur, the South American trading bloc comprised of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Many analysts and business people saw the move as political—one that would not benefit Mercosur, a commercial alliance, in the long run. “I think that Venezuela should enter Mercosur by one door, and we should all leave by another,” said José Augusto de Castro, vicepresident of Brazil’s Association of External Commerce. “This is all about politics.”
Chávez has also put the finishing touches on the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish-language acronym ALBA) with Cuba and Bolivia. The pact is highly critical of the formation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and has provisions for exchanging oil and social programs among the three signatory countries-a program that has already been in effect with Cuba for a few years. The Venezuelan-sponsored social programs have been a huge hit among some of South America’s most impoverished.
In northeast Brazil, dozens of people have received free eye surgery in Venezuela. “It’s God in heaven and Chávez on Earth,” said Maria Nazare Nunes da Costa, 69, in an interview with Brazil’s O Globo newspaper. “I have been waiting two years to have this surgery done in Brazil.” Cuba has also been sending physicians to poor areas of Venezuela and Bolivia in exchange for cheap oil.
For his part, President George W. Bush recently said he was “concerned about the erosion of democracy” in Venezuela and Bolivia. His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was more direct. In an address to the U.S. Congress in February she accused Chávez of “leading a Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain.” She urged the international community to become “more active in supporting and defending the Venezuelan people.” In May, the U.S. State Department banned arms sales to Venezuela because of the country’s close ties with Iran and Cuba. Chávez’s response was to go elsewhere for arms.
In addition to the fighter jets and rifles that he’s buying from Russia, Chávez also plans to set up two munitions plants in the country which will start producing weapons in three years’ time. “The Russians are going to install a Kalashnikov rifle plant and a munitions factory,” Chávez said at the end of May. “So we can defend every street, every hill, every corner.” He has repeatedly accused Bush of planning an invasion of Venezuela— an allegation that U.S. officials have denied.
Dressed in his old army uniform and red paratrooper beret, Chávez also handed out assault rifles to reservists. Chávez, who refers to Bush as “Mr. Danger” in his weekly radio and television addresses in Venezuela, recently announced an ambitious program to train two million reservists who will be ready to fight if the U.S. does decide to mount an invasion of Venezuela.
While the U.S. makes no secret about the fact it has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into financing opposition to Chávez in Venezuela, little has changed. He is standing for re-election in December in a country where he keeps tight controls over the media, and opposition to his rule is keenly suppressed.
“I think that Chávez is more of a threat to the stability of the region vis-à-vis his neighbours than vis-à-vis the United States,” says Hester, the Calgary economist. “There has been lots of rhetoric but both countries remain strong partners. Despite the talk, Venezuela has never stopped shipment of oil to the U.S. ever, not even during the oil embargo of the 1970s. The Venezuelan oil company also has huge assets in the United States. And there has never been talk of freezing those assets by the U.S. government.” M
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