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The Chávez Shuffle

SOURCE: AP/Fernando Llano

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez pauses during a news conference at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 10, 2009. Chávez calls himself the new Simón Bolivar, whose portrait is shown on the background, yet his politics contradict those of the legendary commander in chief.  

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is undoubtedly one of Latin America’s most recognizable political figures for his provincial code of behavior—from incendiary statements against George W. Bush to a failed attempt to hug Queen Elizabeth II—and for his “Bolivarian Revolution,” a political agenda that, he claims, resembles the ideals of Simón Bolivar, one of the iconic leaders who contributed to the independence of several South American nations from the Spanish monarchy in the early 1800s.

But his policies are antithetical to the Liberator’s ideals, chief among them an integrated Latin America comprised of separate countries linked politically and economically but without any outside meddling in each country’s affairs. Last year, for example, Chávez explicitly voiced his support for Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN. He claimed at the time that both Marxist-inspired guerrilla groups are legitimate armies with political goals, and as such “they must be recognized…as insurgent forces that have a political project…which here [in Caracas] is respected.”

Chávez’s comments sparked understandable criticism in Colombia. Colombia’s Foreign Minister at the time, Fernando Araújo, said that Chávez confused support with interference in Colombia’s affairs, especially when he intended to play a mediation role in the liberation of several FARC abductees, among them former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Most recently, Chávez has intervened in the current situation in Honduras. On June 28, military troops ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya—an ally of the Chávez administration—based on a claim that Zelaya wanted to change the constitution by holding a referendum that would allow him to seek a reelection. According to the Honduran Constitution only the Congress can call referendums, yet Zelaya pushed ahead and called on the armed forces to distribute ballot papers to the population.

Once Zelaya was ousted, the current interim leader, Roberto Micheletti, threatened Zelaya with arrest if he were to set foot on Honduran soil, and he accused Chávez of aggravating the crisis. Indeed, despite the overwhelming support Zelaya has received from the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and the United States, Chávez is the only foreign chief of state who has threatened military intervention if “there were hostilities against his diplomats.”

Zelaya’s alleged move is reminiscent of Chávez’s way of politics in Venezuela. In 1999, Chávez pushed a referendum for a new constitution that was passed, allowing him to increase his presidential term from five to six years. The same referendum turned the Congress into a unicameral body to tighten his control over political institutions, and renamed the country as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Finally, Chávez won another referendum last February, which allows him to be reelected indefinitely.

Like Chávez, Zelaya changed his political ideology soon after he was sworn as president. He came to power in 2006 as the leader of a center-right party, promising to halt crime and vowing to push the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States. But two years later, he became a close ally of Chávez by joining the revolution’s brainchild called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas—or ALBA in Spanish—a socially oriented trade group comprised of Nicaragua, Dominica, Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia formed as an alternative to the stalled U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

ALBA seeks to cover issues that range from oil, communication, external debt, mass media, and food sovereignty. On the latter, Chávez also proposed last year to launch what he calls “Alimentos del Caribe” or “Food of the Caribbean,” an association of Caribbean nations to produce and trade food throughout the region. This new block bolstered Chávez’s “Bolivaresque” initiative, also known as “oil diplomacy,” or the pursuit of influence over other nations with the economic power of Venezuela’s petroleum, thanks to PDVSA, the $3 billion state-owned company whose operations were reoriented to revamp the Chávez administration’s social programs. One example is Petrocaribe, a 2005 pact that allows indebted Caribbean countries—including Honduras—to buy oil with some money upfront—or with products such as bananas or rice—while the rest can be paid over the course of 25 years at 1 percent interest.

Chávez has long accused the U.S. government of “Yankee imperialism” in Latin America, and blames the United States for the current standoff in Honduras—never mind that the Obama administration is supportive of Zelaya and was instrumental in bring former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Oscar Arias in as a mediator. So where will Chávez’s contradiction lead him?

His own country today is a ticking bomb due to rising insecurity and unemployment. In addition to these social problems, Venezuela’s public hospitals are in shambles, health centers are closing, and construction and other public investments have stalled. The success of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution probably depends on how long Venezuelans—and perhaps Latin Americans—can handle Chávez’s contradictions, and how the Obama administration can effectively debunk any semblance of another Cold War-era tactic of supporting “troglodyte” military takeovers while viewing Latin America as a key player in global politics.

Robert Valencia is an Assistant Editor for American Progress. Special thanks to Stephanie Miller for her input in this article.

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