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?
The Turning of a Continent

Chávez touts the importance of what he calls “pluri-polarity.” Implicit in this notion is that Venezuela will emerge as a new regional power to counter the United States—a promise that appeals to his ultra-patriotic countrymen and helps account for his domestic popularity.

There’s one obvious way in which Chávez could truly stagger the United States. Venezuela is an important supplier of oil to America, providing about one-seventh of its petroleum. Chávez appreciates the power this provides him. By touting plans to build a pipeline to the Pacific and cutting deals with Chinese and Indian energy companies, he creates the impression that he might someday cut off the United States—a move that could send American oil prices soaring as the country scrambled to find new suppliers.

But while the United States relies on Venezuelan oil, Venezuela is even more dependent on the American market. More than half of Venezuela’s oil exports head north toward the Gulf of Mexico—some 1.5 million barrels a day. Over the course of Chávez’s presidency, Venezuela has received billions of dollars from America in oil purchases.

Ultimately, not even a lover of Quixote dares invest too much hope (or cash) in preparing for a break with the American market. Nature has tied Chávez’s arms. Venezuelan crude comes from the earth in a particular viscous form that requires specialized refineries, the type that exists in Louisiana and Texas, not China or India. The country’s fleet of tankers is geared toward transporting this oil to the Gulf of Mexico, and can’t be reversioned for longer hauls. What’s more, Venezuela doesn’t just export its oil to the United States; it actually sells the stuff there in the 14,000 Citgo stations that the state oil company owns.

None of these obstacles is theoretically insurmountable, but the barriers are so high that neither Venezuela nor its Asian customers have gone much beyond daydreaming of a new relationship. Turning those daydreams into reality would require significant planning, and the United States could simply rearrange its buying patterns—oil is a fungible commodity over anything but the very short term.

But Chávez can still wound the United States by turning his region sharply against it. While Latin America doesn’t have the same strategic importance as the Middle East, America depends on it for trade and for its cooperation in stamping out narco-trafficking—both of which could diminish in a political environment where Chávez holds sway. (Venezuela has allowed members of FARC, the Colombian narco-terrorist group, to cross freely into its territory, and a senior official within the Colombian government has accused Chávez of actively supporting the group.) And at a time when U.S. international leadership appears to many to have lost its legitimacy, coalition-building—for continued trade liberalization, for punitive sanctions against rogue regimes, for military action—has become both more difficult and more important.

Oil money is of course one source of Chávez’s regional influence. Last year, he signed an agreement to provide thirteen Caribbean countries cheap financing for oil imports. He recently bought up more than $1 billion in Argentinian debt, allowing Argentina to pay off what it owed to the International Monetary Fund. (Argentina will end up paying Venezuela more than twice the interest rate that it had been paying the IMF, but that seems of little importance to Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner, who said the early repayment will allow “freedom for national decisions.” Kirchner recently fired his economy minister in favor of a more leftist choice. His new foreign and defense ministers favor strong ties to Chávez’s government.) Chávez has also offered to buy $300 million of Ecuador’s debt, and is providing aid and lending to Bolivia. His spending is not altruistic: he is self-consciously trying to assemble a bloc of nations that can be set against the United States on matters of trade and international leadership.

But his regional influence extends well beyond the reach that his oil money provides. He has tapped into a deep vein of frustration and anti-Americanism throughout his continent, and is skillfully exploiting it.

Latin America is in the middle of a leftward swing, a reaction against the economic policies of the past two decades. These early-nineties reforms, known as the Washington Consensus, aimed to counter the continent’s runaway inflation and massive debts with free trade, privatization, and balanced budgets. But despite this spurt of neoliberalism, the reformers failed to deliver on their much-hyped promise of prosperity. Not only did they fail to alleviate the terminal problems of poverty and corruption; they also helped inspire the revival of a raw populism that many Latin Americanists had left for dead.

How far left will the region swing in reaction? Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the Caracas paper Tal Cual and one of Chávez’s prime adversaries, has written a book called Dos Izquierdas (“Two Lefts”). Under his taxonomy, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva represents one of these lefts, which pays lip service to Castro but adopts a more pragmatic attitude toward economics and remains committed to liberal democracy. Like European social democracy, it ultimately seeks to humanize capitalism, not destroy it—a political program that could help Latin America correct the excesses of its neoliberal experiment without entirely undermining its core economic contributions.

Chávez, on the other hand, represents a more retrograde form of socialism. His belief in strong leaders over strong institutions, his preference for patronage over careful policy, and his mistrust of some of the basic elements of the capitalist system add up to disaster for government transparency, democracy, and development.

Which of the two lefts will eventually win out is unclear. Most residents of Latin America still believe that market capitalism is the only system that can lead to development, and Lula is more popular than Chávez overall. But there’s no doubt that Chavez’s approach is winning adherents. Chávez may soon have close friends running Nicaragua, Mexico, and Peru. Argentina’s Kirchner seems the junior partner in his relationship with Chávez, despite his country’s bigger economy and military. Chávez’s protégé Evo Morales has already won the Bolivian presidency, in part by following Chávez’s own model of anti-American rhetoric and populist appeals. Morales has promised to decriminalize coca production and redistribute land, and plans to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution this summer. Even Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia and America’s staunchest ally in South America, has appeared with Chávez in front of Simón Bolívar’s home and bashed American “meddling.”

Chávez’s performance last November at the Summit of the Americas, held in the Argentine resort of Mar del Plata, reveals why his appeals to the leaders and citizens of Latin America have been so successful. He skipped away from the awkward group photos with his fellow heads of state, and addressed a crowd of 25,000 anti-globalization activists gathered for a “counter-summit” in a soccer stadium. He wrapped his arm around Diego Maradona, one of the greatest soccer players of all time, who’s probably more admired than any politician at the official proceedings. “I think we came here to bury FTAA [the Free Trade Area of the Americas],” Chávez intoned. “I brought my shovel.”

He was playing a clever inside-outside game: at the same time that he huddled with leaders like Lula and Kirchner, he used the media to go over their heads and speak directly to their radical political bases. This tactic works well because most Latin American leaders still depend on support from their own radical parties. Their activist bases still genuflect toward Havana, and constantly lament that their presidents lack Chávez’s gumption. “They live in fear of Chávez turning against them, because they worry that their people might not take their side,” one U.S. State Department official told me. This dynamic has given Chávez the run of the Southern Hemisphere.

The United States hasn’t shown much deftness in tilting this fight between the two lefts toward pragmatists like Lula. Instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of Latin America’s recent neoliberal experiment, it has insisted on pushing forward with the FTAA—an agreement that has little chance in the current political environment. Where Chávez constantly announces new plans to distribute cash around the region, the United States continues to cut back on its aid packages. And while the Bush administration isn’t about to confront Chávez seriously, it often gives the impression that such a policy is in the works, allowing Chávez to bait the United States into verbal duels—battles that reinforce Chávez’s mythological version of himself.

This hardly makes him the second coming of Simón Bolívar. Nonetheless, there are unavoidable similarities between the two—including some that Chávez might not care to acknowledge. Chávez claims that his favorite book is García Márquez’s historical novel about Bolívar’s last days, The General in His Labyrinth. If this is true, he must know that Bolívar ended his life distraught and depressed. During his final years, Bolívar devolved from radical democrat to dictator. He both praised democracy as “the most sacred source” of power and proclaimed that “necessity recognizes no laws.” When Gran Colombia failed after eleven years of struggle, during which Bolívar himself came to embody many of the oppressive qualities he’d originally campaigned against, he dismissed the continent as ungovernable and descended into a bitter senescence. He died and was buried in Colombia; Venezuela, whose populace had eventually turned on him, had made him an exile in his final years. Chávez, despite his love of poetry, never seems to utter one of Bolívar’s most poignant lines: “Those who serve the revolution plow the sea.”

Historically, Latin American revolution has proved to be just as futile as Bolívar imagined. Because of its peculiar political temperament, the region has swung back and forth on a dialectical rope between socialism and authoritarianism, occasionally stopping, mid-swing, on governments that combine the worst attributes of both. But in recent decades, the region looked like it might finally transcend this pattern of manic change. Widespread adoption of liberal-democratic governance and an embrace of market capitalism seemed to bring relative prosperity and genuine stability within grasp.

Chávez has the potential to disrupt this progress and revive Latin America’s old political habits. According to a recent poll, only about half of the region’s citizens—including minorities in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil—now believe that democracy is always the best form of government. Latin America is vulnerable, and Chávez has provided a blueprint not just for harnessing anti- Americanism but for the slow consolidation of power. Along the way, he may succeed in baiting the United States into a rhetorical fight that it can’t win, and impeding its international leadership. But ultimately, the United States will not be the biggest loser in the battle Chávez is waging. It will never suffer nearly as much as the people of the continent he dreams of liberating.

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Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic and the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

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