The Boston Globe
September 24, 2006
US Ambassador John Bolton dismissed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's speech before the UN General Assembly last Wednesday as "comic strip" material unworthy of respect. That was unfair to comic strips. Dilbert, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible may not be world leaders, but they are models of thoughtful statesmanship next to Chávez, whose crackpot screed set a new low for UN oratory.
"The devil came here yesterday," Chávez intoned, exaggeratedly crossing himself at the podium where President Bush had appeared the day before. "It still smells of sulfur today." He brandished a book by the far-left extremist Noam Chomsky, suggested that Bush needs psychiatric help, called him "the devil" a few more times (as well as "liar," "tyrant," and "world dictator"), and described America as "imperialist," "fascist," and "genocidal." So rabid was his language that Iran ’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed almost moderate by comparison. And Chávez kept it up on Thursday, deriding Bush as an "alcoholic" and a "sick man."
"Even the Democrats wouldn't say that," commented Britain 's appalled foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett. Well, some of them might. But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, normally an unsparing critic of Bush, rose above party politics to answer Chávez's vitriol.
"Hugo Chávez fancies himself a modern day Simon Bolivar, but all he is an everyday thug," she said. "He demeaned himself and he demeaned Venezuela ."
Chávez may come across as a clownish loudmouth -- the “kook from Caracas,” Mary O’Grady dubbed him in The Wall Street Journal -- but his potential for troublemaking is no joke. He is a shrewd strategic thinker who hungers for glory and sees a showdown with the United States as his ticket into the history books. Accordingly, he denounces the American "empire" at every opportunity and goes out of his way to cultivate relationships with America 's enemies.
He made a point, for example, of visiting Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi dictator was under international sanctions, and he has cozied up to Iran 's theocrats and Moammar Qaddafi of Libya . He is an avid protégé of Fidel Castro, and has in turn served as mentor and patron to other anti-Yanqui Latin American presidents, such as Argentina 's Néstor Kirchner and Bolivia 's Evo Morales . According to Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation, Chávez has armed, financed, and provided safe haven to members of FARC, the Colombian narcoterrorists. He has even lavished praise on Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal.
But Chávez, who went to prison in 1992 after trying to overthrow Venezuela's democratic government, has more in mind than striking obnoxious poses. As Franklin Foer noted in The Atlantic last spring, Chávez "speaks incessantly about the coming military confrontation with the gringos." He has ordered his armed forces to study the Iraqi insurgency and prepare to mount a similar resistance if Venezuela is invaded. "He has begun organizing citizen militias, purchased 100,000 new Kalashnikovs, and assigned books on asymmetric warfare to his top brass." When Foer asked Nicolas Maduro, now Venezuela 's foreign minister, what Chávez foresees in US-Venezuelan relations, he answered: "Conflict, in all likelihood war, is the future."
A crazy idea? Maybe, but Chávez is no fool. The one-time prison inmate successfully ran for president in 1998, and in just eight years has managed to transform Venezuela from a stable social democracy into an increasingly authoritarian state in which he controls every lever of state power.
In 1999, for example, Chávez engineered a new constitution that eliminated the Venezuelan Senate and made it easier to pass legislation in the remaining one-chamber National Assembly. Congressional oversight of the military was ended, along with the rule requiring presidents to step down after one term.
He has taken control of the agency that certifies election results and of the huge state-owned oil company, the source of most government revenue. He secured a new law empowering the government to supervise the media, and another authorizing the arrest of any citizen showing "disrespect" to government officials. He got the Supreme Court enlarged from 20 to 32 justices, then packed the new slots with loyal supporters.
And under Chavez, repression is worsening. The State Department's latest human rights report on Venezuela lists numerous abuses, including the torture and killing of criminal suspects, and attacks on political opponents, labor unions, religious organizations, and human rights groups.
As night descends on Venezuela , thuggish rulers everywhere are finding Chávez a kindred spirit. There was indeed an odor of sulfur at the UN last week, but it didn't come from President Bush.