The Talented Mr. Chávez

A Castro-loving, Bolivar-worshipping, onetime baseball-player wannabe, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is perhaps the world’s most openly anti-American head of state. With Latin America in the midst of a leftward swing, how dangerous is he?
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Supporters of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have elevated the political rally to one of the higher forms of recreation. On Saturday mornings, they board scores of government-provided buses in the slums and working-class neighborhoods of Caracas and journey to the urbane Plaza Altamira, the center of one of the country’s richest neighborhoods and the site of many anti-Chávez protests. Amid vans blaring folk music from roof-mounted speakers, they then begin a halting four-and-a-half-mile procession through the city’s concrete and steel valley toward the presidential palace. Along the way, marchers slip into restaurants, families picnic on street corners, and vendors meander through the crowd selling beer and Chávez dolls, which recite revolutionary slogans with the pull of a cord.

I attended one such march on a warm day last December. Walking behind a rusted hearse carrying a coffin on its roof, which advertised its contents—wishfully—as the corpse of George W. Bush, I followed the crowd to an imposing red stage, which rose twenty feet above the street. A cloth backdrop featured the visages of Latin American revolutionary heroes, including the Mexican Pancho Villa and Venezuela’s own Simón Bolívar, who once lived near here in aristocratic splendor.

By five o’clock, the crowd of several thousand had consumed seven hours of speechifying by Chávez supporters and grown hoarse from nearly as much “¡Viva Venezuela!” chanting. It began to grow anxious for the event’s promised climax, when el presidente himself would step in front of the microphones. You would wait around this long, too, and just as eagerly, for as everybody in Venezuela knows, Chávez yields incomparable entertainment.

As the sun began to set behind the stage, Chávez finally appeared. A preternatural showman, he knew better than to head straight to the podium. Instead, he walked to the front edge of the stage, one arm extended toward the crowd, the other holding a microphone. His head was topped with a big-brimmed sombrero, with blue, white, and red embellishments. An entourage of guitarists and horn players, dressed in the ruffled mariachi style, took their place beside him. Before he launched into his own hourlong fire-breathing, anti-imperialist disquisition, the Venezuelan president belted a medley of classic rancheras, a romantic genre of Mexican folk music:

I’m not a gold coin to be liked by everyone
that’s the way I was born
and that’s the way I am
and if they don’t like me
… it doesn’t matter.

The performance was characteristic. As a young solider, Chávez emceed a beauty pageant, and at certain moments in his presidency, he has resembled nothing so much as one of the hosts of the variety shows that Latin Americans adore. On his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, he spends hours recounting tall tales of his youth, reciting poetry, and conducting Dick Cavett–style interviews of left-wing guests, from Harry Belafonte to Fidel Castro. He once rode an Iranian-built bicycle around the show’s set to highlight his country’s economic ties to the Islamic Republic.

Chávez’s antics have inspired considerable confusion. Among the Venezuelan upper classes and opposition, there has long been a tendency to dismiss him as something of a buffoon, an uneducated provincial lacking in self-control and basic manners. Washington, for a time, adopted a variation of this dismissive line. The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during the Clinton era, John Maisto, discouraged searching for significance in Chávez’s bombastic, sometimes bizarre, public appearances. “Watch what Chávez does, not what he says,” Maisto declared.

But Chávez is not just a clown with some oil money in his pocket. He is a deliberate strategic thinker—ham-fisted at times, but also capable of tactical brilliance.

The proximate cause of the rally I attended was a confrontation with Mexican President Vicente Fox. While Fox had joined George W. Bush in championing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a kind of hemispheric NAFTA, Chávez had proposed an alternative trade agreement that would exclude the United States. Several weeks before the rally, Latin America’s leaders had discussed the two plans at a presidential summit in Argentina. Later, on his television show, Chávez showed mysteriously obtained footage of Fox making his argument for the FTAA in private. He then denounced Fox as a “lapdog of the empire,” a taunt designed to highlight the Mexican president’s ties to the Bush administration. “Don’t mess with me, sir, or you will get stung,” Chávez blustered. A diplomatic crisis ensued. Fox demanded an apology. Chávez refused to provide one. Ambassadors were recalled.

This isn’t the way that heads of state normally conduct business. But Chávez wasn’t flying off the handle when he uttered these insults. Nor were his comments (or the airing of the footage that occasioned them) primarily motivated by a desire to advance his trade agenda. By finding an excuse to denounce Fox as an American toady and baiting him into a response, Chávez was hoping to bolster the presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a Mexican socialist—and potential political ally—running to replace Fox (whom term limits prohibit from seeking another term).

Indeed, by some accounts Chávez’s advisers have already been in touch with López Obrador to advise him, and the Venezuelan ambassador was reported to have attended meetings organized ópez Obrador’s supporters. Chávez’s TV stunt certainly worked in his ally’s favor. While Mexicans briefly rallied around Fox in response to the attack, that moment quickly vanished. The attention of the press focused on Fox’s support of Bush—one newspaper cartoon in La Jornada, a Mexico City paper, depicted Fox blocking a soccer ball flying toward Bush’s head. Politicians of all stripes soon joined to cudgel the Mexican president for his cozy relationship with the United States and his alienation of the rest of Latin America, but López Obrador—who had long been the major candidate most critical of Fox—surely benefited the most. Polls conducted in late February suggest that López Obrador will glide into Fox’s old office in July’s election.

I asked one of Chávez’s oldest friends, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, to explain this melding of buffoonery and strategic acumen. Arias Cárdenas has known Chávez since they were cadets in the army in the 1970s. Together they plotted a failed coup and spent over a year in prison. After the aborted uprising transformed both into national heroes, Arias Cárdenas turned on his old friend and ran against him for president in 2000. Now they are in the midst of a slow reconciliation. Chávez “does have a unique sense of humor,” Arias Cárdenas told me, pausing to make sure that he phrased the rest of his answer carefully. “Chávez is a superb strategist. When we were in the army, Chávez took a course in psychological warfare in El Salvador. He became a big proponent of reverse psychology, baiting opponents into underestimating your strength. Chávez does this all the time. On his TV show, he might pick up a carrot and call it a beet. His opponents will begin laughing at him: ‘What an idiot! He can’t even distinguish a carrot from a beet.’ But after the show, I guarantee you Chávez will be the one laughing. He’ll think to himself, I can’t believe I fooled them into talking about carrots and beets all week.”

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