Spare a thought for Hugo Chavez

July 9, 2009

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

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.


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.

Poor Hugo.

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Comedy writers and Hugo Chavez may have to work a little harder now to raise a chuckle than they did when a total buffoon was heading up the White House. It may be less clear how wrong things still are and how many things are still wrong with American domestic and foreign policy, now that a semi-coherent, apparently earnest and almost sincere-looking figurehead has taken George W Bush’s place.

This doesn’t mean the regime has changed, because it obviously hasn’t.

Mega-bailouts to infinitely corrupt negative Trillionaires, endless escalation instead of a timely end to war profiteering, absence of diligence in the prosecution of war crimes, the total decay of public infrastructure, complete and utter nonexistence of any sort of social contract between Americans and what passes for the government of this country, crushing interventionism and fundamental disrespect for foreign and minority cultures – these would all be pretty nasty items of dark humor if they weren’t still actually happening here. Which, sadly, they are.

It’s George Bush Business as Usual, with a slightly less odious individual at the helm. Same old Emperor, new clothes. So, morally and otherwise, Chavez still has the upper hand. Expect plenty more incisive humor from all over the world, in short if not new order.

Unless real change takes place – and soon – the inevitable punch-lines will be all the more bitter in the end.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

Rules change with increasing frequency (Alvin Toffler), but the motives remain the same. It’s not the players. either – it’s THE GAME that sucks. (War Games)

Posted by MikeyKay | Report as abusive

As I understand, the political event in Honduras was not a coup d’├ętat. It was just an urgent action to remove a president supported and manipulated by Hugo Chavez.

Posted by Maru Angarita | Report as abusive

A little tear for Chavez* . Poor guy now has to actually achieve something rather than distract his people with all the CIA/imperialism/conspiracy talk. Now Chavez is being put in a spotlight of a different kind…The shut-up-and-do-something-with-your-count ry-light.

His most educated citizens are leaving in droves looking for a more CLEAR future and better future(I know, my brother is married to venezuelan and im from Puerto Rico!)

“El Gran Hugo Chavez” is not so grand without his old scapegoat “Dubbya”. Now that his social programs are not exactly panning out it is time for the venezuelan people to vote for leadership and not a “show host”.(search wiki Alo Presidente)

p.s. big fan

Posted by chxdlx | Report as abusive

The Bell,
100% right on the money with every word you say. I just have to take time to recognize that because only about 1% of America (if that) gets that there’s no difference in parties or their slimeball bureaucrat members.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive


Posted by DWIGHT M | Report as abusive

Maru Angarita:

You say it was “just an urgent action to remove a president.” Indeed. But if the were so many charges against him, as Micheletti’s people say, why not arrest him and put him on trial? What happened is a return to the darkest days of Latin America and evidence of a remarkable lack of sophistication on the part of those who carried out your “urgent action.” Now one of the justifications given is that Zelaya wasn’t popular. If that were a good reason, quite a lot of leaders, and not only Americans, should be on board of air planes, clad in pyjamas.

Posted by Elvira | Report as abusive

What I have seen so far is tit-for-tat propaganda from both sides. What I haven’t seen is the actual laws regarding removal of the President from power. Is this in the constitution of Honduras? Can the judiciary or legislature order the immediate removal of the Prez?

If not, they have broken their own laws and should be removed from power themselves. If so, then we should all shut up, and let them get on with life – no matter what the One or Chavez says about it.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

Bernd, I have read your article “Fearing the Supermen of Guantanamo” and literally laughed out loud reading the first two paragraphs. The irony is priceless. Thank You. I also read “Obama and the wrong side of History” and I agree almost entirely with your articles. I think you could have mentioned a few more of the dictators from South America.
That being said, I don’t understand your take in this latest article. Are you being sarcastic or are you calling Chavez a dictator?

Posted by Masi | Report as abusive

Seriously, this article is a waste of time, more like lunacy!

Posted by Ian | Report as abusive

My bad, I am legally blind and I thought GMT was the writer not the time. I agree with Elvira totally and the part by Patric about the propaganda. My entry was lengthy and as yet not been posted. Please excuse my mistake with your names.

Posted by Masi | Report as abusive


I’m glad you enjoyed the Guantanamo column. Same idea here.

Posted by Bernd | Report as abusive

This article is a very superficial analysis of current conditions in Latin America. Honduras on the other hand is an example of the possible future of the countries that are governed by a sheep of a populist dictator with an baseless ideology. Zelaya should be allowed to return to his country then he should be judged for the crimes he has done. Honduras is a country worthy of admiration. At this moment it is showing true sovereignty where the people have the last word. The UN, the OAS and other countries that support the restoration of Zelaya as president are the ones who should revise their ideas. Since when is it correct to support a corrupt president who only ensures his own interests and not those of the people? As a Ecuadorian I know how much damage this thieves have done. We just need to take a look at the South American political history. It’s true that the coup was not the answer to the problem but we cannot commit two errors and permit Zelaya to return to power.

Posted by luis nath | Report as abusive

If a government is afraid of the people – such as supressinging information, shutting down media not controlled by the government, is it really for the people?
History shows this is the beginning stages of another repressive government or Dictatorship.
It always takes an uneducated population and or chronic poverty……
He will be known as a dark time in that country

Posted by Shaymus | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Clegg
I have been in touch with you’ the question I asked of you was’ Are your party going have close ties with the commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada etc’ who including them have the Queen as their head of country.
I beleive we are going into Europe to fast’ we are given Europe to much of ourselves. When France cleared their carboard village’ EU told all the coutries within to pay to send those in their country to send them back and to pay for such things. GB and France agreed to pay half of what is was to send those who were waiting their chance to get into the UK. I know now’ France back out of that agreement they siged some months early’ The EU stood by and let France get away with it, Give me our commonwealth everytime, they were with us in two bloody wars’ where are we’ not standing by the history we have with them.
Say no to the EU and welcome back our Commonwealth History and our future.
Mr C P White

Posted by Clive p White | Report as abusive