The Finantial Times
September 14, 2006
Over the past few months Hugo Chávez has put the most inveterate traveller to shame. One minute the endlessly energetic, anti-American president of Venezuela is in Moscow signing a deal to buy military helicopters and manufacture Kalashnikovs; the next he is in Beijing promising to step up oil sales to China; and then he is in Damascus threatening, alongside Bashar Assad, president of Syria, to "dig the grave of US imperialism".
In between, he finds time to visit assorted African and Asian capitals in order to press his campaign to win one of the temporary seats on the United Nations Security Council. This week he is in Havana where he is soon likely to be bashing the Americans again at the summit of the non-aligned movement.
It is still customary for critics, outside Venezuela at least, to dismiss Mr Chávez as an eccentric idealist lost in the kind of romantic fantasies that one of his favourite literary characters, Don Quixote, used to pursue. Mr Chávez might sound like a dangerous extremist but like Cervantes' hero he is essentially harmless, the argument runs.
Apologists, such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, al-ways draw the distinction between what Mr Chávez says and what he does. "I know that speeches often worry people. But a speech is a speech," Mr Lula da Silva told the Financial Times a couple of months ago. Mr Chávez, after all, they argue, has been democratically elected. The scope for radical action is tempered by harsh economic realities. He may rail about blocking oil sales to the US but this is an empty threat. Caracas is dependent on its hated northern neighbour for about half its oil revenues.
Unfortunately, this kind of benign interpretation of Mr Chávez and his government is looking a lot less credible. Venezuela's oil sales are being slowly diversified towards China and other countries. Mr Chávez's democratic credentials are more than a little tarnished of late. If he is such a convinced democrat why has he begun to talk about the need - as he did 10 days ago - for a constitutional change that would allow him to remain in power indefinitely?
Once seen as an outlier against a more moderate underlying leftwing trend, Mr Chávez no longer looks so isolated in his region. Cuba and Bolivia are firm allies. No foreign leader has visited Fidel Castro more than Mr Chávez since the Cuban president's stomach surgery at the end of July. Politicians close to Mr Chávez are well placed in upcoming presidential polls in Nicaragua and Ecuador.
Mr Chávez's latest phase of international activism has been accompanied by ever more strident anti-Americanism. Underpinning this is a Manichean view of the world. Listening to him, it seems that US "imperialism" is responsible for all the world's ills. Mr Chávez rarely misses an opportunity to bait the giant. This week, for example, he claimed that the US might have fabricated the September 11 2001 attacks on the twin towers in New York.
Anyone the American empire opposes is his friend, a stance that explains why he is such a fan of dictators such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Links with Iran and Syria have become more prominent. Indeed, along with Cuba and Syria, Venezuela is leading international support for Iran's nuclear energy ambitions.
Membership of the UN Security Council would offer Mr Chávez another platform. He would not enjoy a veto over the body's decisions. But his style could make the search for the diplomatic middle ground harder. While Europe, Asia and the US grope towards a more consensual, multilateral approach to the complex problems of the Middle East, Mr Chávez or his representatives are likely to grandstand and shoot from the hip, creating conflict and division.
Mr Chávez is unlikely to win the regional consensus that would automatically entitle him to the seat but he could well win the two-thirds majority at next month's general assembly meeting. UN members should turn him down. Countries should not be blinded by their own difficulties with the US into offering support.
In Latin America, moderate leaders such as Mr Lula da Silva and Chile's Michelle Bachelet have a particular responsibility. Standing firm against Mr Chávez is not the same as accepting the dictates of the US administration. They may disagree strongly with the US administration's policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But they should not - in reaction to that - give encouragement to knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
The writer is the FT's Latin America editor