Spare a thought for Hugo Chavez
Spare a thought for Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life Venezuelan leader who flourished in the role of Latin America’s defender against an evil empire led by a devil who smelt of sulphur and was named George W. Bush.
Those were the easy days for Chavez. Now he has become a dragon-slayer without a dragon, an actor on a stage without the most important prop. It was one thing to rally the Latin masses against the widely-detested Bush, it is another to deal with Barack Obama, “the first (U.S.) president who looks like us,” in the words of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“The devil, the devil himself, is right in the house, ” Chavez said, to laughter and applause, in his infamous 2006 anti-Bush speech to the United Nations General Assembly. “And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.”
Chavez’s reaction to the bizarre coup that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was evidence that the Venezuelan knows the rules of the game he played for years no longer apply. In his weekly television show, he said he did not think Obama was behind the plot.
Claiming otherwise would have been difficult even for a president given to surreal conspiracy theories. Within hours of the coup against Zelaya, a Chavez ally, Obama condemned the action, as did the Organization of American States and the European Union, which promptly withdrew its ambassadors from Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
Contrast Washington’s reaction to the way it greeted a short-lived coup against Chavez and you might well come to the conclusion that he owes a debt of gratitude to the Bush administration.
On April 12, 2002, the White House greeted with barely concealed glee news that a coup had ousted Chavez, an elected president. He had created the conditions that led to his ouster, according to then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. In other words, he only had to blame himself.
Washington looked forward, Fleischer said, to working with Venezuelan democratic forces (a euphemism for the plotters) to “restore the essential elements of democracy.” As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. Chavez was back in power within 48 hours and has portrayed himself as a victim and a target of CIA plots ever since.
The role of victim will be more difficult to play in future, barring big missteps on the Latin American scene by the Obama team. So far, there have been none. Commenting on the Honduras coup during a visit to Moscow, Obama said policy differences were no reason to abandon democratic principles. During the abortive coup against Chavez, the Bush team seemed eager to do just that.
U.S. ANTAGONISM BOOSTED CHAVEZ
Chavez’s political fortunes have been boosted considerably by confrontational U.S. moves, and not only during the eight years of George W. Bush. In 1998, when Chavez campaigned for the Venezuelan presidency, the Clinton administration denied him a visa to visit the United States. At the time, polls put his support at between three and five percent.
Those numbers shot up when Chavez incorporated the visa denial into his campaign. Holding aloft a visa credit card, he would tell cheering crowds that “this is the only visa I need,” not the visa the U.S. denied him. He won the election.
Since then, Chavez has emerged as a role model for Latin American leaders who want to perpetuate themselves in power by way of changing their countries’ constitutions. After narrowly losing a referendum on term limits in 2007, he tried again this year and won. He now can run for re-election as often as he wants.The opposition saw it as a move towards a lifetime presidency.
In January, Chavez’s left-wing ally Evo Morales won a referendum that allows him to run for a second five-year term. Last September, another Chavez ally, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, won a referendum on a new constitution that vastly expanded his powers and allowed him to hold office for two additional four-year terms.
Another leftist, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, has begun pushing for changes to let him stay on after his present term expires in 2011. (The urge to perpetuate themselves in power is not restricted to Chavez’s leftist allies: In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe is mulling ways to run for a third time, after having the constitution changed to give him a second term).
In Honduras, Zelaya tried and failed to follow the Chavez script. Soldiers stormed into his residence and bundled him onto an Air Force plane, still in his pyjamas, bound for Costa Rica, after days of tension over his attempt to gauge public support for a referendum on term limits.
And for once, Chavez does not have an American president to blame.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.)