New York Times
January 28, 2007
Policy analysts and pundits have been predicting for some time that the so-called unipolar moment, in which the United States stands unchallenged as the sole superpower, will soon come to an end. The debacle in Iraq has hastened this reckoning and sharpened the anxieties about America’s role in the world — perhaps especially among those who believe that the United States is a benign hegemon and that the real choice is between a Pax Americana and anarchy. But it is the recent conduct of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s firebrand president, that offers the starkest evidence yet of the changed circumstances that American policy makers are starting to confront around the world.
In many ways, Chávez is an unlikely figure to assume the mantle of leadership of this brewing, if slow-burning and incoherent, global revolt. A paratroop officer who instigated a failed coup attempt against the corrupt government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, Chávez would seem to conform more to the Latin American stereotype of the military man turned populist (Juan Perón of Argentina being the prototypical example) than to that of a world revolutionary à la Fidel Castro.
As his hold on power has tightened, however, Chávez’s rhetoric has increasingly embraced the most ossified traditions of left-wing sectarianism. Echoing Che Guevara’s insistence that the Cuban revolution was creating a “new man,” Chávez has spoken of what he calls his Bolívaran revolution inaugurating the “moral regeneration” of Latin America. He has compared his own regime with the Paris Commune, and boasted of sending a copy of “Das Kapital” to the bishop of Caracas. In speeches, he invokes the tutelary idols of the antiglobalization left — Noam Chomsky (whom he cited in a speech at the United Nations); Pierre Bourdieu, the French social theorist; and Antonio Negri, the erstwhile theorist of the Italian Red Brigades. Such rhetoric is commonplace at antiglobalization events like the annual World Social Forum but not in the public declarations of heads of state.
Now Chávez’s deeds have begun to catch up with his rhetoric. Re-elected overwhelmingly to a second term in December, Chávez subsequently announced that he would consider nationalizing, among other things, the assets of some foreign oil companies and the largest phone company, which is partly owned by Verizon.
To non-Latin Americans, these statements seem incomprehensible. And given Chávez’s outlandish rhetoric, it is tempting to dismiss him as a madman — as many in Washington were doing until quite recently. After all, Chávez had endorsed the theory that the attacks of 9/11 were planned and carried out by the Bush administration as pretext for going to war. And he has repeatedly praised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making five visits to Iran — visits that President Ahmadinejad reciprocated with a recent tour of Latin America that began in Caracas.
The general sense that Chávez must be unhinged derives even more, perhaps, from his enthusiastic support of a Soviet-style command economy. He rejects out of hand what has become the received wisdom of our time, which is that every country, like it or not, must participate in a globalized world economy. But Chávez declares that he is going to construct a socialist Venezuela in a socialist Latin America, globalization be damned. To many, this seems as quixotic as trying to bring back feudalism and the divine right of kings.
In moving from rhetoric to action, Chávez may indeed have set the stage for the end of his rule. But the Chávez phenomenon should not be dismissed. Not only is he still immensely popular within Venezuela, but he also has become an iconic figure for many people across the world who see the United States as the principal threat to world peace, not its benevolent guarantor. In fact, he has come to play the same role in 2007 that Fidel Castro played in 1967. Perhaps, globalization or no globalization, the world has changed less than most people thought.
Of course, it is anything but clear that communism in Cuba will survive the death of Castro. Indeed, Cuba hangs on economically only because Venezuela provides it with subsidized oil in much the way the Soviet Union did before it collapsed. At the same time, however, the left-wing surge throughout Latin America continues unabated. Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, joins not only Chávez but also Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. It’s significant that President Ahmadinejad — who, it should be noted, is not a Socialist or particularly hostile to capitalism of the crony kind — met with all of them. More significant still is that all these men were swept into power by an electorate for whom globalization is an epithet, not the collective economic destiny of humanity in the 21st century.
In all likelihood, the chances of a lasting unipolar world were always slight. History teaches that any time one power predominates, a coalition forms to oppose it. Many people expected such a coalition to be led by China (American naval war planners still do). But the coalition that seems to be arising first as an “antiprinciple” to U.S. power is one that unites a Castroite Latin American left, hard-line Shiite parties like Hezbollah, Iran and at least some extreme elements of the antiglobalization movement. Note that at Hezbollah’s so-called victory rally in Beirut after the summer war with Israel, many participants held up placards with Chávez’s face pictured alongside that of Sheik Nasrallah. It is the oldest of foreign-policy instincts, after all, to hold that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Perhaps we were kidding ourselves when we imagined that when Castro died, the yearning in many parts of the world for a figure like Castro would die as well. If Hugo Chávez proves nothing else, it is that such dreams are alive and well.
David Rieff is a contributing writer for the magazine.