This month South America’s bull-in-a-china-shop, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, led his country into South America’s biggest trading bloc, Mercosur. He sees a trade partnership with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay as a way of countering free trade deals with the United States. But, despite Yanqui misgivings, Chávez’s mano a mano style contrasts with the more pragmatic approach of other leftist members of Mercosur. His revolutionary rhetoric is unlikely to gain many converts.
“We are defeating the hegemonic pretensions” of the United States “and today we have placed a new cornerstone for the freedom and unity of South America,” Chávez said in the Venezuelan capital Caracas after the Mercosur signing ceremony.1 However, Brazilian President Inácio Lula da Silva distanced himself from this strident anti-Americanism. “We have the right to demand there be no type of meddling in our region,” Silva said. “Today we are here to say to the world that we don’t want to fight with anybody. We are peaceful countries. Each country should maintain its relations with the United States,” he added.
Venezuelan fervour may be harder to export than Mr Chávez believed. Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay have all elected left-wing governments over the last few years. Nonetheless, relatively conservative candidates won recently in both Colombia and Peru. Alan García’s victory in Peru over Ollanta Humala last month — like Chávez , a left-leaning ex-military nationalist — was particularly disappointing. Chávez had tried to meddle in the campaign with remarks like “I pray to God that he won’t become president” and threats to break diplomatic relations with Peru.
Failure in Peru will not keep Venezuela and its petrodollars from being a play-maker in the region. In Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world Chávez was the only Latin-American — and he is committed to spread his “Bolivarian Revolution”. Thanks to Venezuela’s enormous oil revenues — it is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, and the fourth largest exporter to the United States — Chávez has plenty of money to buy friends. In a way, he is a throwback to Latin-American leaders of the 50s and 60s, who ruined their nations’ economies with extravagance and bad judgement.
Chávez says that he needs until 2030 to change this Caribbean country, which has half of its population under the poverty line. To ensure this, he is running for a third term as president in December and plans to run in 2012 as well. Despite strident opposition, Chávez has won every referendum and plebiscite. Last December the opposition boycotted parliamentary elections. This backfired — Chávez supporters now have enough seats to pass sweeping constitutional reforms which will ensure his power for years to come.
Uruguayan journalist Miguel Arregui sees Chávez as part of a long list of power-hungry Latin-American populist leaders, although this one swaggers about with pockets full of cash. “His speech is a mix of magic realism and verbal incontinence, but it attracts the popular classes and sceptical militants”, says Arregui. Argentinean analyst Rosendo Fraga says that Chávez “agrees with Simón Bolívar’s conception that once Venezuela achieved independence from Spain the next goal should be to articulate a Hispano-American front to fight leadership together with Brazil, an idea that could turn into the current Venezuelan foreign policy”.
Chávez ’s unsuccessful attempt to snatch political control by a coup in 1992 resulted in two years imprisonment. When he was released, he went into politics and in 1999 he was elected president, promising to drag Venezuelans out of poverty and to crush corruption.
Chávez ’s ideology is a confusing mix of socialism and anti-Americanism fueled by the skyrocketing price of oil. Marco Aurelio García, a prominent Brazilian political advisor to President Lula, says that he is a socialist, but cannot quite identify Chávez ’s brand of socialism.
One strain in his ideology is clear enough: authoritarianism. Chávez has threatened to remove licences of excessively critical TV stations. The judiciary is so close to the executive that journalists have to measure their words lest they offend Chávez and end up fighting a defamation case. Even Amnesty International says that Venezuela lacks an independent and impartial judiciary.
But Chávez is Teflon-coated. He has survived outrage at home, criticism by human rights organizations and stern words from other foreign nations, including the United States. In fact, 60 per cent of the electorate approves of his performance. A two-day coup, a national workers strike in 2002, and a failed recall referendum in 2004 only seem to have made his position more secure.
Fractious foreign relations
The Bush administration, accusing Chávez of being a destabilizing force in Latin-America and soft on the war on terrorism, has banned arms sales to Venezuela. So Chávez has purchased warships and aeroplanes from Spain and Kalashnikovs from Russia, and has beefed up his army. He usually declares at his Sunday TV and radio program “Aló Presidente!” that he is preparing his country against a United States attack. Complicating his war of words with the gringos is that the two countries are tied at the hip by oil. The United States takes about two-thirds of Venezuela’s oil exports and Venezuela supplies about 15 per cent of America’s oil needs.
No doubt many Latin Americans enjoy watching Chávez cocking a snook at the US. But their governments are more restrained. Chávez has called upon Latin American countries to join a Bolivian initiative to create a People’s Trade Agreement to combat “neo-liberal” “deregulation, privatization and the indiscriminate opening of markets”2. So far, there are only three members: Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. Recently elected Bolivian President Evo Morales seems to be walking a similar path by nationalising the local natural gas industry. However, there are no other Chávez look-alikes on the horizon.
In fact, despite the allure of his petrodollars, Chávez has failed to charm other Latin Americans. Regional economic agreements seem to be fissuring, partly as a result of his policies. The former Brazilian Ambassador to the US, Rubens Barbosa, says that “At the same time he presents himself as the champion of regional integration, Chávez is responsible for the current region tends of disintegration”. In April, for instance, he withdrew from the Andean Community bloc to protest bilateral trade deals between Peru and Colombia and the United States. He also pulled out of a trade group including Colombia and Mexico after criticizing its “neoliberalism”.
Latin-American businessmen fear that Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur will politicise the group. “We’re not talking about reinventing Mercosur but about improving it. Mercosur doesn’t have to adapt to Venezuela; rather, the Chávez administration has to do so”, declared Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
Last year, Chávez regaled the United Nations with a typically bombastic speech in which he presented his “Bolivarian Revolution” as an alternative to US-inspired market-oriented policies, which, he said, are “the fundamental cause of the great evils and the great tragedies currently suffered by our people” 3
We will fight for Venezuela, for Latin American integration and the world. We reaffirm our infinite faith in humankind. We are thirsty for peace and justice in order to survive as species. Simón Bolívar, founding father of our country and guide of our revolution, swore to never allow his hands to be idle or his soul to rest until he had broken the shackles which bound us to the empire. Now is the time to not allow our hands to be idle or our souls to rest until we save humanity.
But despite these fine sentiments, it is unlikely that other Latin Americans see Hugo Chávez as a new Bolívar. The new Bolivarian Revolution will probably stay at home.
Pedro Dutour is a Uruguayan journalist from the newspaper El Observador in Montevideo: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) “Chavez Hosts 6-Nation Trade Summit”. Washington Post. July 5, 2006
(2) “A People’s Trade Agreement”. Statement by Bolivian President Evo Morales.
(3) “President Chavez’s Speech to the United Nations”. Venezuelanalysis.com. Sept 16, 2005.