Washington—quit fixating on Hugo Chávez!

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 1 2005 3:05 PM

Santa Claus vs. Mr. Danger

Washington's fixation with Hugo Chávez is helping spread his "Bolivarian revolution" across Latin America.

Latin America's mac daddy. Click image to expand.
Latin America's mac daddy

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sure knows how to work the media spotlight. Witness his request for Pat Robertson to be extradited after the evangelist called for the Venezuelan's assassination last week. (Robertson subsequently apologized.) When Hurricane Katrina hit the American South, Chávez was in front of the cameras again, offering to ship emergency supplies. And earlier in August, he floated the possibility of providing cut-rate oil and medical services to poor Americans.

Chávez's rising profile and focus on his needy northern neighbors is no doubt getting under the skin of his nemesis President Bush, whom Chávez regularly refers to as "Mr. Danger." The Bush administration has always been suspicious of Chávez, who is tight with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and in 2000 became the first democratically elected head of state to visit Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. Washington's barely concealed glee when a coup briefly deposed Chávez three years ago certainly didn't help. After Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fingered Chávez as a "negative force" in Latin America during her confirmation hearings, the Venezuelan retorted that "the most negative force in the world today is the government of the United States."

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The escalating nastiness has led to hand-wringing about U.S. dependence on Venezuelan oil. Up to 15 percent of U.S. oil comes from Venezuela, and Chávez has hinted he'd like nothing better than to cut off the flow. But the real danger isn't that Chávez will halt shipments to the United States (to do so would be financially ruinous). His brothers-in-arms photo ops with anti-American leaders aren't such a threat, either (it's a mostly harmless way for Chávez to stick his finger in Bush's eye). What's really worrisome is how Chávez is using his oil wealth to expand his influence in Latin America. And the Bush administration's belated, ham-fisted attempts to contain Chávez seem to be only heightening his appeal.

As oil prices have spiraled to record levels, Chávez has used his oil wealth to become a mac daddy in Latin America. Venezuela holds the largest estimated oil reserves outside the Middle East, and Chávez has long supplied cheap petroleum to Cuba in exchange for medical doctors and physical-education teachers. Recently, he's been extending his oil largess throughout the region. When Ecuadorean protesters vandalized pipelines and pumping machinery earlier this month, Chávez announced that Venezuela would ship oil free of charge to ensure the Andean country didn't fall behind on shipments to its customers. In June, 13 Caribbean nations signed on for cheap credit for oil imports. And Chávez recently inked deals with Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay that will supply those countries with cut-rate petroleum. Venezuela has also bought millions of dollars of Argentine and Ecuadorean debt. Since both countries are in the economic doghouse, these purchases appear to have been made with an eye toward potential political, rather than economic, returns.

The Venezuelan government insists it is acting out of altruism, but Chávez is obviously trying to build a counterweight to traditional U.S. influence in the region. Part of his motivation no doubt stems from his visceral dislike of the United States and capitalism, which he decries as "the road to hell," but Chávez also wants to fulfill what he perceives as a historical imperative. One of Chávez's heroes is Simón Bolívar, who liberated swaths of South America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s and unsuccessfully attempted to unite most of the region under one government. Chávez's ambition to extend the reach of his so-called Bolivarian revolution could well be his modern version of the independence hero's vision. To be sure, the vast majority of Latin Americans have no interest in seeing a replica of Cuba or Venezuela emerge in their countries, but Chávez's generosity is coming at a critical moment: There is widespread resentment in the region over the reforms of the 1990s that failed to improve the lives of the vast majority of Latin Americans. Chávez's oil wealth and populist rhetoric could win over more adherents.

There are also allegations that Chávez isn't just attempting to extend his reach through oil. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has accused Chávez of aiding the FARC guerrillas, who have been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s. Chávez's purchase of 100,000 AK-47s from Russia earlier this year led Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to publicly question why Venezuela would be making such a large acquisition. Defense Department officials have been more explicit in their criticism of Chávez's relationship with Bolivian indigenous leader and coca farmer Evo Morales: They insist Chávez has been passing money and resources to the left-wing politician, who came within a hair's breadth of winning the country's 2002 presidential election and has a shot at becoming Bolivia's chief executive later this year. The administration has not provided any evidence for its claims, however.

Chávez's increasing prominence in the region seems to have prodded the United States to pay more attention to Latin America. That's a positive development: Washington largely ignored the region after the Sept. 11 attacks, even as countries like Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia descended into political and economic crises. But U.S. diplomacy in the region has a distinct "Operation Contain Chávez" whiff to it, and that strategy could well backfire. The most visible U.S. emissary to the region has been Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (he's visited the region three times in the last 10 months), and his public lectures on the perils of an empowered Chávez may just boost the Venezuelan's appeal, given the rising anti-American sentiment in the region. It was no accident that Mexico and Chile resisted significant U.S. pressure two years ago and voted against the U.N. Security Council resolution that was, in the end, a precursor to the Iraqi invasion.

Washington has further undercut its position by reducing aid to Latin American countries just as Chávez has emerged as the region's Santa Claus. Twelve Latin American countries have balked at signing immunity agreements with the United States that would shield U.S. citizens from being tried in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. As a result, Washington has cut the funding it supplies to those nations for military training—and aid for social programs could soon follow. Unsurprisingly, this has generated plenty of ill will.

The controversy over the International Criminal Court is indicative of a broader flaw in the Bush administration's diplomacy: They bang policy drums that don't resonate with Latin Americans. Many governments in the region are teetering, and economic insecurity is spreading. In that context, focusing on the International Criminal Court, support for the Iraq war, and containing Chávez and Castro seems beside the point. If Chávez's popularity rises—and if some of his allies win high office in the region—it won't be exclusively because of his oil diplomacy. Washington's attitude has created a vacuum—and Chávez is seizing every opportunity to fill it.

Alexandra Starr, a former political correspondent at BusinessWeek, was an Organization of American States fellow in Caracas, Venezuela, from 1995 to 1998.