What Did the United States Do To Make Hugo Chávez So Mad?

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March 6 2013 9:41 AM

Why Did Hugo Chávez Hate the United States So Much?

He once wielded a ceremonial gavel at the New York Stock Exchange.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gives a thumbs-up along with New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso before ringing the closing bell to end the trading day at the NYSE June 10, 1999.

Photo by HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president famous for anti-American rhetoric, died Tuesday. He referred to the United States as “a bad person,” “an assassin,” and “a violent invader.” He wondered aloud whether the United States was responsible for a spate of cancer diagnoses among Latin American leftists. Perhaps most famously, Chávez called George W. Bush the devil and claimed the U.S. president left a sulfur smell around the U.N. speakers’ podium. What did the United States do to make Hugo Chávez so mad?

It pushed free trade. No one knew quite what to make of Hugo Chávez when he rose to international prominence in 1998. A Venezuelan historian who resigned from Chávez’s constitutional reform commission told the Associated Press in 1999: “One doesn’t know if Chávez is a fascist, a communist, an anarchist, a Peronist, a Fidelist. We just don’t know. Maybe he’s none of that, maybe he’s all of it.” The most common charge at the time was that Chávez was a potential dictator, and U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela John Maistos denied candidate Chávez a visa to visit the United States on those grounds. Nevertheless, after his election, there were some green shoots suggesting that Chávez and the United States could enjoy an amicable working relationship. Chávez vowed to leave U.S. investments intact. (He later reneged on that promise.) He personally charmed the editorial board of the Washington Post by rejecting “irresponsible populism.” As impossible as it may seem today, Chávez wielded the ceremonial gavel at the New York Stock Exchange and threw the first pitch at a Yankees game in 1999.

The relationship between the United States and Chávez took a decisive turn at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001. The Bush administration’s top priority was finalizing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have extended NAFTA throughout the Americas (excluding Cuba). Chávez was convinced the agreement would entrench disparities between the region’s wealthy and poor countries. He accused the Bush administration of bullying smaller neighbors and treating the free trade agreement as a certainty “written on Moses’s tablets.” Although Chávez and Bush made weak attempts at reconciliation at the meeting—they told each other they wanted to be “friends” on the summit’s final day—the meeting showed Chávez that his surest path to global significance was as an opponent of the United States. Chávez repeatedly claimed that the CIA was trying to assassinate him and that the United States attempted to oust him from office in 2002.

The fracturing of the relationship between Chávez and the United States bears a startling resemblance to the course of interactions between the United States and Fidel Castro, another cancer-stricken Latin American leftist leader. During the Cuban revolution, Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times wrote in adoring terms about the youthful crusader: “Havana does not and cannot know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro.” After seizing power, Castro visited the United States and met with Vice President Richard Nixon, who thought Castro had strong leadership qualities despite being “incredibly naive” about communism. The Cuban revolutionary even took the opportunity to visit Yankee Stadium. (Visiting Yankee stadium is a must-do for politicians from baseball-loving Latin America. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, with whom the United States enjoys reasonably good relations, threw the first pitch at Yankee Stadium and rang the NYSE bell in 2009.) The U.S. bond with Cuba soured over economic issues, just like the U.S.-Venezuela relationship would several decades later. Castro nationalized the property of American companies and wealthy Cuban citizens early in his regime, putting him in conflict with the United States, which repeatedly tried to overthrow and assassinate Castro.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.