San Francisco Chronicle
September 21, 2006
Emerging force among nonaligned nations
He pops up almost everywhere -- Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America and this week at the United Nations, denouncing U.S. policy with revolutionary fervor.
Like a recurring bad dream for the Bush administration, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is molding himself into one of the world's most pre-eminent anti-American leaders.
Days before he addressed the United Nations -- where he called President Bush the devil Wednesday -- Chavez hosted the equally anti-American Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Caracas. They cemented an increasingly close alliance by signing more than 20 trade and investment deals, and Chavez promised to cut off oil supplies to the United States in the event of a U.S. military attack on Iran.
At last week's summit in Cuba of the 116-nation Non-Aligned Movement, Chavez emerged as the heir apparent of the movement's longtime patron, the ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. However, Chavez has something Castro never had -- huge oil revenues that will last for decades to come.
"Unlike Castro, who depended on the Soviet Union, Chavez is completely independent economically, which gives him a large margin to maneuver," said Luis Lander, a professor of social sciences at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
Although Chavez came to power in 1999, his global influence has expanded dramatically in the past two years as his oil revenues boomed. He is pouring aid into leftist allies Cuba and Bolivia, providing discounted oil to Caribbean and Central American nations, buying high-tech weaponry from Russia and even spreading Venezuelan wealth around western Africa. If Venezuela succeeds in its attempt to gain a two-year rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council, Chavez will have a big new megaphone on the global stage.
"Chavez is wildly popular in places where you wouldn't imagine people had even heard of him," said Carlos Mendoza, who was Venezuela's ambassador to Russia until last year and previously was ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "In the (Persian) Gulf states, for example, everyone knows who he is, they admire him and love him."
In the past two months, Chavez has been an international whirlwind, visiting China, Russia, Belarus, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Portugal, Qatar, Syria, Mali, Benin, Angola, Argentina, Brazil and Jamaica. He visited Cuba three times, becoming a fixture at Castro's bedside and relaying news of the Cuban president's medical condition to the world.
Chavez's dollar diplomacy has begun to outstrip Washington's.
U.S. government aid to Latin America was about $1.7 billion this year, of which $1 billion was military-related aid for anti-narcotics programs. While precise figures are not available, Venezuela's foreign aid appears to be several times greater than the U.S. total for the region, according to a Chronicle survey of publicly released data.
Chavez has single-handedly rescued Cuba's economy, providing an estimated $1.8 billion annually in oil and other investments. In Argentina, Chavez bought $3.1 billion in government bonds in the past year, allowing the government to pay off its debts to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; in Bolivia, he is giving about $200 million in aid programs, ranging from military supplies to computers for schools; and in Nicaragua and El Salvador, he has discounted oil and gasoline to leftist municipal governments controlled by the Sandinista Front and Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, respectively.
In the Caribbean, under a pact known as Petrocaribe, 14 countries pay only part of the bill for Venezuelan fuel up front and can finance the rest over 25 years at low interest. In Jamaica, Chavez has given a $274 million loan for a highway and sports complex and $65 million for a refinery.
In one of his most grandiose plans, Chavez is planning to build a 5,700-mile natural gas pipeline through South America, at a cost of up to $25 billion, in an attempt to unite the continent behind his "Bolivarian" vision fashioned after the 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"These projects make no economic sense, but they are part of his political megalomania, so normal economic laws don't apply," said Alberto Quiros, an oil industry analyst in Caracas and former president of Royal Dutch Shell's Venezuela operations. "Chavez is willing to pay any price."
So far, in the view of many analysts, Chavez's initiatives are paying off.
Polls show that Chavez is the third-most popular leader in Latin America. According to a report by Consulta Mitofsky, a Mexican polling firm, based on surveys taken March through May, Chavez is supported by 70 percent of Venezuelans, trailing only his leftist allies Evo Morales of Bolivia and Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, at 81 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
"Many Latin Americans, and people in other continents, are deciding they like his nationalism, his opposition to free-market economic policies and privatizations, and they are realizing they can stand up to Washington," said Steve Ellner, a professor of history at the Universidad de Oriente in the eastern city of Puerto La Cruz.
While Chavez is thought to be a shoo-in for another six-year term in December's presidential election, he has not made friends everywhere, even on his own continent.
On Saturday, he said Venezuela would refuse to recognize the Mexican government of conservative President-elect Felipe Calderon, saying that leftist challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was robbed of victory in the July 2 voting. Chavez said the proclamation of Calderon as president destroyed the possibility of Mexico having good relations with Caracas. Mexican officials reacted angrily, accusing Chavez of interfering in Mexico's domestic politics.
Relations with left-of-center Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva chilled after Chavez supported a move earlier this year by Bolivia's Evo Morales to expropriate the operations of Brazil's state-owned Petrobras in Bolivia's natural gas fields and to demand a tripling in price for Bolivia's gas exports to Brazil. Chavez has offered Morales $600 million to help set up a Bolivian state-owned gas and oil firm and build a petrochemical complex.
At home, Chavez's foreign ambitions seem to provoke little enthusiasm. Despite giant government billboards in Caracas and elsewhere touting solidarity with revolution around the world, attendance at government-organized street demonstrations in support of Cuba and the Palestinians, and other leftist causes generally draw small crowds.
According to a public opinion poll conducted in May by Alfredo Keller y Asociados, a Venezuelan research firm, 40 percent of Chavez's own supporters disagree with his foreign policy.
But that has not stopped Chavez from moving his foreign policy even further leftward. In July, he replaced Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez, an urbane intellectual who had health problems, with hard-liner Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver and trade unionist who was speaker of Congress. Maduro had no previous foreign policy experience and speaks only Spanish.
Chavez established tight personal bonds with several foreign rulers such as Iran's Ahmadinejad, came out in support of Hezbollah in its recent confrontation with Israel and supports North Korea in its nuclear weapons dispute with the United States.
Chavez's outburst at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday is not the first time he has aimed venom at Bush.
In a nationally televised speech March 19, he seemed as if he wanted to pick a schoolyard fight with the U.S. president: "You are ignoramus, you are a burro, Mr. Danger ... or to say it to you in my bad English," he said, switching languages with an exaggerated accent, "you are a donkey, Mr. Danger. You are a donkey, Mr. George W. Bush."
As his audience tittered with nervous laughter, he returned to Spanish. "You are a coward, a killer, a genocider, an alcoholic, a drunk, a liar, an immoral person, Mr. Danger. You are the worst, Mr. Danger. The worst of this planet. ... A psychologically sick man, I know it."
Chavez constantly accuses the Bush administration of plotting to overthrow him. U.S. officials deny any such intent, although they frequently label Chavez a destabilizing influence for the hemisphere and express support for Venezuela's opposition parties and organizations.
"I view him as a threat of undermining democracy," Bush said of Chavez in a Fox News interview July 31. "And I view him as a threat. You know, I wish he would invest his petrodollars with the people of Venezuela, and give them a chance to, you know, get out of poverty, and give them a chance to realize hopes and dreams."
In August, the Bush administration created a new position of intelligence chief for Venezuela and Cuba -- a sign that some observers saw as indication that Washington has finally decided to treat Chavez as an arch-enemy like Castro.
Chavez nicknamed the office's director, Jack Patrick Maher, a longtime CIA official, as "Jack the Ripper," and claimed that "the empire is organizing a plan for December or before December," referring to Venezuela's elections.
A military-civilian coup in 2003 that briefly overthrew Chavez was carried out by many groups that at the time were known to receive U.S. funding, and documents released in 2004 revealed that U.S. officials had advance knowledge of the coup plotting. The Bush administration has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, although at the time it expressed support for the junta installed by the coup.
Government documents recently obtained by the Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show that opposition groups have been receiving about $5 million per year in funding through State Department channels. But the administration has refused to disclose the names of about one-half of the groups receiving the aid, claiming that to do so would endanger their security.
Jeremy Bigwood, an analyst at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank, sued the Agency for International Development, the State Department's foreign aid arm, last year in federal circuit court in Washington, arguing that all such recipients should be identified because the aid programs are not part of covert intelligence work. A ruling is expected later this year.
For the time being, however, Chavez seems secure in the saddle. With the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush administration focusing most of its remaining attention on Iran and North Korea, Washington may have little capacity to wage gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.
"The situation around the world is sufficiently antagonistic to the Bush administration that Chavez can gain a lot of support and gradually, bit by bit, wear down the United States," said William Ratliff, a Latin America expert at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "Like Che Guevara said, 'two, three, many Vietnams,' Chavez can gain a lot of followers for who knows how many years."