Burly, long-winded, egomaniacal Latin American dictators are hardly a new phenomenon. For some reason, however, they don’t seem to be as friendly to the Americans as the left wing press has portrayed them. Hugo Chavez, who currently holds the record for listening to his own voice (8 hrs. in a radio speech in 2007), is now the star of the anti-U.S. Hispanic world.
According to such political experts as Sean Penn, Danny Glover and Oliver Stone, Chavez is the next Fidel Castro. Now that’s a distinction with which there might be some Latin disagreement. The Venezuelan president has been encouraged by support from the equally self-adoring Persian, Ahmadinejad, and that carries more international weight than the Hollywood “intellectuals.” Hugo Chavez really believes he is a genius, and he has many among his loyal lieutenants who attest (daily) to that fact.
But aside from the bombast and self-congratulations, Chavez is a hard worker. He appears at different times each week on both radio and TV. He has a daily schedule of military/security and economic meetings that is far greater than his current American counterpart. However, like so many politicians he enjoys contact with crowds, although security considerations have cut down on his ventures beyond his heavy protection detail. While enjoying the image of being a “man of the people,” Chavez at the same time holds himself above the throng. Contradiction aside, that’s Hugo.
He followed last year’s visit by Vladimir Putin to Caracas and a much ballyhooed Russian offer to help in Venezuelan nuclear facility construction and a $2.2 billion loan to buy Russian fighter jets and other arms systems with the announcement this year that he plans to build a new American States bloc — minus the U.S. and Canada. Chavez is a busy one indeed.
Chavez has enjoyed a reputation among his fellow Latin American leaders of a man who can and will spring forth with quotes from earlier revolutionary personalities from Trotsky to Bolivar, from Castro to Mandela. In such a fashion this military-trained politician believes he shows off his intellectual depth and educated talents. Reportedly, aged Fidel has been impressed by this self-professed prodigy — Raul Castro far less so.
Even though Hugo Chavez believes he is unique, his studied artificiality is not unlike most dictatorial leaders. It would be a mistake, however, to put him down as a buffoon. He follows a tradition of most totalitarians in seeking to give the appearance of their commitment to the welfare of the people as the justification of their need to stay indefinitely in office. Another characteristic shared by Chavez with others of similar fascistic ilk is that they always appear to confuse centralizing government control with assuring social welfare and economic benefit.
By tying his interests and political self-justification to the stated historical positions of the great Venezuelan leader, Simon Bolivar, Chavez adorns himself with a mantle of irreproachable patriotism and selflessness. Daniel Ortega, the staunch leftist leader in Nicaragua, has played Chavez like a violin and as a result can get just about anything he wants from the Venezuelan. Not unsurprisingly, Ortega is reported to view his politically opportunistic comrade as his personal investment banker. Apparently Venezuelan oil riches go far to make up for socialist shortcomings.
Chavez has been broadening his network of Latin American contacts for some time. His intelligence apparat has had extensive and long-time collaboration with Colombia’s major anti-government, drug trafficking guerrilla group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). At the same time Hugo Chavez has encouraged a special friendship with Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Sentos. Bogota, in turn, has just transferred one of its leading cocaine drug lords (Walid Makled, Venezuelan citizen of Syrian descent) to the care of the Venezuelan intelligence agency, Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN). This was in direct contravention of an extradition accord between Bogota and Washington — to say nothing of the efforts to create a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia.
Perhaps the most telling psychoanalysis of Hugo Chavez was indicated in a DEA e-mail intercept of a FARC operative in Caracas reporting to his Colombian handler. In commenting on the problem of making a deal with Chavez, the agent wrote: “He has an enormous muddle in his head that nobody understands.” The frustration clearly implied in this comment mirrors a similar reaction among Chavez’s fellow Latin American leaders.
The Venezuelan president’s effort to build his ability to project military power is a matter of serious concern within the region. Even the Cubans have shown a wariness of the growth of Venezuelan financial and military strength. As one Latin American diplomatic source put it: “Raul Castro trusts Hugo Chavez about as much as he trusts any other ex-army officer Latin politician with dreams of grandeur.” Perhaps Sean Penn should argue this out with Raul.