The Washington Post Company
Saturday, June 3, 2006
Hugo Chavez has managed to replace George W. Bush as the imperialist specter.
FOR YEARS Hugo Chavez's steady dismantlement of Venezuela's democracy and his embrace of dictators and terrorists around the world -- from Fidel Castro to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- prompted next to no reaction from Latin America's democratic governments. The silence was shameful, partly because Venezuela's former leaders fought for human rights in countries such as Chile, Peru and Argentina during the 1980s and '90s, but also because the quiet was in part purchased by Mr. Chavez, who lavished subsidized oil and lucrative trade deals on governments around the region.
Now at last, Mr. Chavez is the object of a growing backlash from leaders around Latin America -- from Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua, among other countries. In part, the politicians are responding to foolish overreaching by Mr. Chavez, who has been busy trying to turn Bolivia into a satellite state while suggesting he has similar plans for much of the rest of the continent. Latin Americans don't like imperialism, whether it comes from Washington or Caracas. And even leftist leaders, like those who rule in Brazil and elsewhere in South America, find it hard to imagine themselves prospering in a Venezuela-led economic bloc that includes Cuba but shuns the United States.
The other reason Latins have found their anti-Chavez tongues is delightfully pragmatic: It's a proven vote-getter. Elections are taking place or are on the way in a host of Central and South American countries -- and politicians in most of them are finding that linking their opponents to Venezuela's demagogue works wonders. The biggest beneficiary may be Peru's Alan Garcia, who is the front-runner in Sunday's presidential election runoff. Mr. Garcia is himself a leftist populist who two decades ago presided over one of the most disastrously incompetent governments in Peruvian history. But his opponent, a former military coup-plotter named Ollanta Humala, has been endorsed by Mr. Chavez, and Mr. Garcia has focused his campaign on that point, saying only he can prevent Peru from becoming "a colony of Venezuela." It's a logical strategy: Mr. Chavez's approval rating in Peru is 17 percent.
In Mexico, commentators concluded several months ago that the poll lead of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July's presidential election could not be overcome. But that was before Mr. Lopez Obrador's right-wing challenger, Felipe Calderon, began running television advertisements connecting Mr. Chavez to his opponent; the polls now show that Mr. Calderon has taken the lead. In neighboring Nicaragua, Sandinista leader and presidential candidate Daniel Ortega is also suffering from Mr. Chavez's poisoned kiss.
The Bush administration, which has haplessly allowed Mr. Chavez to exploit the U.S. president as a political foil for years, has hit on just the right response as it has watched Peruvians and Mexicans turn the tables on the Venezuelan: It has kept quiet. The sight of Latin Americans rising up in defense of democratic values, and against the attempt of a would-be regional hegemonist to subvert them, is inspiring -- and it requires nothing from Washington save discreet applause.