Saturday, May 20, 2006

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Hugo Chavez, unwitting friend to America

Juan Forero has a story in the New York Times about how Latin American countries are starting to rebel against a loudmouthed bully -- and we're not talking about the United States here:

As Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, insinuates himself deeper in the politics of his region, something of a backlash is building among his neighbors.

Mr. Chávez — stridently anti-American, leftist and never short on words — has cast himself as spokesman for a united Latin America free of Washington's influence. He has backed Bolivia's recent gas nationalization, set up his own Socialist trade bloc and jumped into the middle of disputes between his neighbors, even when no one has asked.

Some nations are beginning to take umbrage. The mere association with Mr. Chávez has helped reverse the leads of presidential candidates in Mexico and Peru. Officials from Mexico to Nicaragua, Peru and Brazil have expressed rising impatience at what they see as Mr. Chávez's meddling and grandstanding, often at their expense.

Read the whole thing. The Economist has more on Chavez's meddling in Peru:
According to the pollsters most Peruvians dislike Mr Chávez and his meddling. One poll, by Apoyo, found that only 17% had a positive view of him, and 75% disapproved of his comments. Only 23% approved of Mr Morales, and 61% objected to his calling Peru's outgoing president, Alejandro Toledo, a “traitor” for signing a free-trade agreement with the United States.
Both articles suggest that Mr. Chávez shows no sign of stopping his self-defeating behavior.

As a citizen of the United States, I, for one, would like to thank Mr. Chavez for his antics -- keep it up, Hugo!!

posted by Dan on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM


I don't know. It's hard to know what to believe because of all the spin involved with respect to the entire region.

Do we honestly take into account the needs of their citizens and their ability to build a future when we steer their commercial enterprises and policies in ways that we favor? The quick answer is yes, due to the benefits of our way of doing business.

Often though, things aren't always that simple. I'm not aware enough to the situation to really say much, but I can at least ask a few questions and wonder about it.

posted by: Grokodile on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Well, you win some, you lose some. Apparently Chavez is a big hit with the new president of Chile. See this link:

posted by: roger on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Being someone on the left, it is sad for me to admit that I am a little frustrated with Chavez. For the most part, I support his politics, his attempts to redistribute wealth, his internationalism, his support for oppressed people, his dislike of the imperial USA.... the problem is that I think he just needs to cool it a little. He is too hot for his own good, like the Chinese economy. I just wish he would play it cool a bit and focus on small steps rather then constantly trying to hit a home run.

If he wants Latin integration, I wish he would work on making deals to open up Latin universities to each other and foster exchange students and unity, rather then attack the leaders who align with the USA. Or, try to unite labor unions across the region, rather then build his military.

I just wish that he would play his hand more carefully and let his views slowly absorb into Latin America, rather then continue to force them. When he tries to force them, he is just setting himself up for defeat. He is not going to be able to win over everyone, and too many people have vested interests in maintaining the current situation, and the USA has too much power to directly force out. I think he could have more influence if he didn't keep trying to rally people around himself.

For that matter, I would add that it does betray a possible problem with him. There is no way he is a dictator or an authoritarian (as those on the right like to say), but i do worry that he does want a cult of personality. and if that is true, that will hurt the chances of achieving his goals. I just wish there was more ground work being done, work harder to build from the bottom up and not so much from the top down.

But also, I agree with the first post in that it really is hard to judge what is going on. Because he is such a big target, he does generate something of an echo and he rallies a backlash factor from the USA or other institutionalized elites. so it is hard to tell what is true criticism that actually reflects locally, or what is just white noise that is trying to bash him from a distance. Without a doubt, the forces against him are more vicious and disgusting then he will ever be, and they will try anything and everything to destroy him.

posted by: joe m. on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Both articles suggest that Mr. Chávez shows no sign of stopping his self-defeating behavior.

Of course, as long as the Bush administration continues to demonize him instead of largely ignoring his bombast, he'll maintain a significant core level of support.

Joe M. I think he definitely believes in a cult of personality and has an auuthoritarian streak in him. He once led a coup and I find HRW's reports on his efforts to limit free expression disturbing, as well as his efforts to involve the military in domestic activities, something which history tells us has been the source for authroitarianism in Latin America. I don't think, however,that he is realistically a threat to anyone or anything outside of Venezuela and he has benefited greatly from an incompetent opposition.


If he brings up Bolivia's desire to get its coastline back from Chile again, I believe that President bachelet will not be so charmed by him.

posted by: Randy Paul on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Randy, it is hard for me to believe Bachelet is unaware of that fact. This was the impressive thing about the meeting, actually, since one would think that the president of Chile would be much more likely to side against Chavez.

Chile also has another nationalistic problem with Peru -- the chronic Peruvian complaint that Chile took part of Peru and should give it back. I have a feeling Bachelet has decided to try detente, and that Bolivia might just turn around about its claims in order to find investment for a nationalized gas sector, and a market in China -- which would necessarily involve the old project of a pipeline to Chile.

If Chavez was even part of brokering such a deal, it would be a total coup for him. We will see.

posted by: roger on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]


My point was that if he brings the issue up again with the kind of statements he made in the past, the Chilean public won't stand for it and Bachelet has to respond to them.

As for Chávez brokering any diplomatic solution, not very likely IMHO, based largely on his poor self-control.

posted by: Randy Paul on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

He's more dangerous than Libya and Pakistan times eleventy trillion.

posted by: norbizness on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Epa, norbizness! That's a bit much.

Chavez is riding high on anti-Bush sentiment of which there is plenty, but as the NYT suggests, even that won't last (certainly not beyond 2008). The fact is U.S. foreign policy towards the region dominates and Latins can merely react to it: Latin foreign policy is still satellital (if that word exists) to U.S. policy towards the region. Plus, Latin American countries don't do unity very well and their only hope in really taking on America lies in that.

Even Venezuela for all its oil still needs the U.S. more than the opposite (Venezuelan oil -- like Mexican -- is heavy stuff, requiring special distilleries, so it isn't as easy as Chavez suddenly selling crude to China instead of the U.S. Also, consider that your typical Fortune 500 gets no more than 10% of revenues from Latin America, with wild swings in profitability. So the region remains an afterthought -- the annoying cousin you have to invite to dinner once in a while to be civil.

Latins will ultimately shoot themselves in the foot. History has proven it so over and over, and nothing has really changed to make me think it'll be any different this time around.

posted by: St. James the Lesser on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

,i>Latins will ultimately shoot themselves in the foot. History has proven it so over and over, and nothing has really changed to make me think it'll be any different this time around.

How about the growth of China - and not just for petroleum. China and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD - the world's largest producer of iron ore) are putting together a joint venture to build a few steel plants in Brazil to produce slab steel. One of them in particular is designed to virtually serve China exclusively. It will be in the Northeast state of Maranhão, precisely because it is that much closer to the Panama Canal than the more industrialized Southeast.

Brazil will soon become (if it hasn't already) the world's largest producer of soybeans and the primary destination of its exports will be China. Also Brazil has been running a record trade surplus for the past several months, notwithstanding the fact that the real has been the world's strongest currency against the dollar over the past 18 months and Brazil has its hard currency reserves in dollars.

South America in particular do not need to look north so much as east these days to see where the future lies.

posted by: Randy Paul on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Randy Paul said:
"Joe M. I think he definitely believes in a cult of personality and has an auuthoritarian streak in him."

fine, that might be true. And i agree it is a problem. But who is he fighting against, the saints? I agree that he is not perfect, but that is not reason to be against him (yet). His fight is just, his opponents are the ones who have plundered their country, who have allowed the poor to suffer and languish. At this point, on balance, Chavez is doing good for his people. I think it is a problem that he does not have a perfect record on press freedom and that the country's government is dominated by his allies. But on the other side, what do his enemies want? they are the ones who made the country into such an unfair place, and they want power back. so, at this point, i agree he is not so hot and there are things that are troubling in his rule, but at this point it is helping those most in need and making life better for the ones who need help most.

St. James said:
"Chavez is riding high on anti-Bush sentiment of which there is plenty, but as the NYT suggests, even that won't last (certainly not beyond 2008)."
I can't believe how colonial this sounds. do you really believe he is popular because of opposition to the USA? do you really think people in his country are more concerned with what the USA does then with their own poverty or situation? it is a joke. The truth is that South America is full of people who have been ignored and sidelined. in some part because of the USA, but it is larger then that. But Chavez is the first leader in decades in South America to concretely address that mass of people who are striving for help and recognition. Despite what it may seem like from the USA, Chavez is not popular because of sound bites carried by the NY Times or such, but because he is dealing with a situation of inequality and suffering that is way out of control.

I personally am disappointed with his work. I think, given his position, he could do much better. I think he could better use his resources and better address issues. He deserves support for many things he is doing, but it bothers me greatly that he is almost exactly repeating the mistakes that Nasser made in his day. If he keeps it up, his country will end up like Egypt is today, and i don't want to see that:

posted by: joe m. on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Mexico nationalized their oil sometime in the 1930s, and to my knowledge has never denationalized the resource. Mexico has other restrictions on investment in the country -- foreigners can't own land within 50 miles of the coast, I understand. Yet somehow Bush feels the need to bend over forward on immigration for the Mexican government. And I rarely here neoliberals or neoconservatives (as if there was a difference) mounting a media campaign against Mexico -- not against PAN, not against PRI . My question is, why not?

Hugo Chavez, whatever his faults, has not had his army cross our border. Nor is he interfering in our internal affairs. He is trying to make life better for his own poor and working class *in their own country*. He may be going about it the wrong way, but at least his plan doesn't involve pushing millions of his people into the US.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Randy Paul, what is happening in Latin America is that the region is slowly changing masters, not gaining independence.

Brazil is indeed shifting soybean and iron ore sales from U.S. to China (the Chinese are paying for new highways and a new port to ensure the stuff gets there smoothly); Argentina is also doing same with soybeans and beef. Chile has locked in long term copper sales to China, and Venezuela is selling more oil to China and trying to convince them to finance enhancements to the Panama Canal. Ecuador is also selling more oil to them.

China is very wisely locking in their future resource needs and Latin America is taking great pleasure in occasionally thumbing its nose at Uncle Sam about it. They don't get to do that too often and the fact is it feels really good.

joe m., I am not persuaded and stand by my position: Chavez is popular primarily because he taunts the U.S. Many a politician down here in Latin America has made a career of it, at least for a while. The region may have indeed been "ignored and sidelined" but that is no one's fault its own.

posted by: St. James the Lesser on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Joe M.:

You contend that Chavez is not authoritarian or a dictator, but you express concern over a growing cult of personality. That is an interesting notion, but one that seems a bit contradictory - at least on the surface. I am wondering are there other examples of democratically elected leaders, who upheld the rule of law, but also nurtured a cult of personality? Obviously, quite a few figures have come to power democratically - more or less - Hitler, Peron, etc, but they all abused their power. Abuse of power and cult of personality seem to go hand in hand, so I am wondering if there are exceptions.

posted by: SteveinVT on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

I do not directly equate image with substance. Chavez has put some restrictions on the media in his country, but he has not gone around banning opposition voices. He bolsters himself with the army, but he has not turned to martial law. His country is open politically and tries to leave space for opposition to function. it is a result of their weakness and desire to engage uncivilly that lead them to withdraw from elections and has marginalized them.

I am not saying that Chavez is my ideal ruler. And i agree he is becoming increasingly problematic as time passes. But i do not think he is a dictator or authoritarian.

By your logic, i could list ten negative things bush has done and say he is a dictator (single party state, lost popular vote, appointed persident by the courts, subverts law and courts to conduct intelligence, advocates military means to solve problems, only gives lecture to pre-approved groups of people, attacks the media as being "liberal"....), but it would not completely reflect the reality of the situation.

I will agree that Chavez is a dictator when he bans opposition parties, closes down papers and media outlets, arrests his detractors (not just the ones who literally were involved in a coup), eliminates the ability to contest elections, extends his terms in office by fiat.....

he is not even close to that. and many of the problems with the opposition in their country are because they shot themselves in the foot, not because Chavez.

posted by: joe m. on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]


If much of Latin America shifting its trade focus from the USA to China is not anything different in LatAm history, all I can say is that this is a very tough room!

BTW, it's not iron ore that Brazil is shipping to China, but slab steel made in a factory that China has helped invest billions in. That indicates to me that the Chinese are there for the long haul. That's a sea change in the relationship between North and South.

There are a lot of nations arond the world that would love to have Brazil's trade surplus.

posted by: Randy Paul on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

that should it's not just iron ore

posted by: Randy Paul on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

I am wondering are there other examples of democratically elected leaders, who upheld the rule of law, but also nurtured a cult of personality?

Kennedy, but he didn't last long. Nixon. Reagan. Both of them pretty good at upholding rule of law. There was something about Nixon getting the IRS to pay special attention to his detractors, but I haven't heard that they made up ruling to persecute them.

posted by: J Thomas on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Dan, I would caution against a simplistic "the critic of my critic is my friend" analysis of this. Business types in South America, to be sure, are distressed by the current surge of populist, leftist politics there, and some of the comments you note reflect that. But even if there's a growing sentiment in places like Mexico and Peru that Chavez is a bit of grandstanding jerk, this by no means implies a more sympathetic outlook towards the Americans. Latin Americans, believe it or not, are perfectly capable of distrusting both the US and Venezuela.

posted by: Jonas on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Mitchell Young,
Please lighten up on Mexico. A few salient facts about Mexico's oil: Accordng to Mexico's constitution, the country's oil is the "patrimonio de México." Let's not forget that this clause was placed in the constitution in part because of the interference of the US. Every stage from exploration to sale at the pump is controlled exclusively by Pemex, the national oil company. As a result of its status as patronage employer for 100,000 slackers (note the irony that patronage and patrimonio have the same root), Pemex is notoriously wasteful and doesn't have the money to explore the gulf, or to build the refineries that it needs. All Mexicans know this, but are powerless to change the constitution in the face of powerful political forces in Mexico's congress. My point is that Mexico's oil policy is not the result of a conscious decision by politicians or popular demand by voters. It is an accident of history, caused in part by the US. Mexico is not Venezuela.

Mexico is is the midst of its second truely free national election in its history. All three candidates have expressed a commitment to NAFTA, free trade in general, and close ties to the US. The current president has flatly told Chavez and Castro that gratuitous America-bashing does not serve anyone's interest. Regardless of what Latin-Americans think of US foreign policy, trade with the US has created millions of jobs and brought millions out of poverty. In the same manner, the US continues to buy Saudi oil and Chinese electronics. Not much difference.

Finally, you suggested that Mexico is interfering in US politics and encouraging an invasion by illegal immigrants. Although surely the Mexican government could do more, the fact is that there are 40 million desperately poor Mexicans who are willing to risk their lives to work in another country. The proximate cause of the "invasion" is the illegal hiring by US employers, which could be halted were it not for interference by powerful forces in the US Congress. Without a doubt, the ban against hiring illegal aliens is not enforced because businesses like having cheap workers who have no rights. Aren't we a little embarassed by this?

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Ah yes. The perpetual bogeyman foreign policy. It's Khaddaffy, it's Daniel Ortega, It's Manuel Noriega, it's the Ayatollah Khomeini, it's Saddam Hussein, It's Kim Jong Ill, it's Hugo Chavez...No wait it's Ahmadinejad....and the evil dictator of Libya....Not so bad now. The Somali warlords...our new pals....

The US has devolved into giant paranoid puppet lashing out at enemies percieved and made up.

Wait until Bush and Cheney start turning inwards when they claim that the people are the enemy. It's the press, it's the liberals, the Godless Democrats, the gays, the Mexicans, the drug dealers..

Ah yes, they should have fun with all of the new tools of oppression that they have milked out of a complicit and comatose congress.

It's starting to smell like post-revolution France.

Chavez isn't a speck of a problem.


posted by: GSD on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Im sure Latin-Sino relationship will end badly....maybe when some chinese investmenst going bust or are nationalized if the make money. We should the chinese have better luck than the gingos.

posted by: Ralph on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

This whole latins "sick of Chavez" has a whiff of wishful thinking about it.
I would love to see our heroic wartime leaders data in those same nations.

posted by: centrist on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

Surely, no one thinks all Latin-Americans think alike. Quite the opposite. Most Latin-American countries have a wide gulf between the rich and the poor, with a small and struggling middle class. This is fertile territory for a populist, left-leaning, authoritarian like Chavez, Morales, and others. (I might even include Lopez-Obrador in that list.) Their support base consists of the disaffected, mostly uneducated poor who see that some of their countrymen are living pretty damn well indeed and want a piece of it. The rich merely want to protect what they have. The middle class wants basic services and taxes low enough for them to make a decent life. For most, cultural imperialism is just the price to pay for being next to a large powerful neighbor, and Chavez is just a big-mouthed opportunist pendejo. US foreign policy isn't even in their radar. Sometimes, it's not about us.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

joe m. definitely couldn't get into Chicago.

posted by: Jackass on 05.20.06 at 08:33 AM [permalink]

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