INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY
November 11, 2007
Latin America: Spain's King Juan Carlos delivered the repartee heard 'round the world Saturday by ordering Venezuela's abusive dictator to "shut up" at a summit. Drawing the line there may mark a turning point.
That's because Spain isn't just any country, and its monarch isn't just any figurehead. In asking "why don't you shut up" to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Juan Carlos signaled that time has run out on democracies' tolerance of anything a boorish dictator seeking to dominate the region can dish out.
That's no small thing. Chavez's manners reflect his leadership. At the Ibero-American summit of Spain, Portugal and their former colonies in the Americas in Santiago, Chile, he unloaded a raft of loutish insults. Meanwhile, Venezuelans rioted in the streets back home over his ongoing domestic power grab.
Waltzing into Chile, Chavez began by provoking his host country, saying it should give up land for his ally Bolivia to give it sea access. At a separate rally, he announced that Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, who maintains cordial relations with the U.S., was "sleeping with the devil." At a plenary session, Chavez spoke for 26 minutes instead of his allotted five — a Castro-like breach of etiquette.
The last straw came as he interrupted the speech of Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, by calling his predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, "a fascist, " adding that "fascists are not human. A snake is more human."
Refusing to stop even with his microphone cut off, King Juan Carlos showed leadership by telling the Venezuelan to shut up. It was made weightier because it was the first time the king had been seen angry in public.
Not only does the smack-down from Spain's beloved king undercut Chavez's pretense of being a respectable democratic leader, it provides some first points of unity in Europe about how to deal with Chavez. Many western European nations now signal they're getting tired of Chavez's antics. The king expressed what many were thinking. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, recognizing how badly Chavez had blundered, leapt to his defense with damage control.
Why is this worse than other fracases Chavez gets involved in?
Mainly because of who King Juan Carlos is.
As Chavez seeks to seize dictatorial power in Venezuela on Dec. 2, the Spanish monarch is a man who did exactly the opposite and is loved for it. Back in 1975, the king was in a position to take dictatorial powers after he was chosen to succeed ailing strongman Francisco Franco.
Unlike Chavez, the Spanish king turned that down and moved Spain to a constitutional monarchy, because he really wanted to make Spain a democracy. Not only did the king put himself last by this choice, he later thwarted a 1981 military coup to end Spain's democracy. For this, King Juan Carlos is a hero in Spain — and in all places where democracy is valued.
For Latin America's democracies, most of which shook off their military dictatorships about the same time Spain did, Spain offers a live example of what's possible if the king's selfless example is heeded, perhaps a much more vivid one than even the U.S. does.
Spain today is not only a vibrant democracy, it also has converted itself from one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the most prosperous. In the 1950s, thousands of Spain's poor sought to emigrate to countries such as Venezuela. Today, that has reversed.
Spain also has moral authority in Latin America because it's not particularly connected to the U.S. Its independence from the U.S. over the Iraq War deprives Chavez of a verbal weapon. There's no way Chavez can claim Spain's criticism of his rudeness as mere pro-U.S. sentiment.
The Spanish king's smack-down may have other reverberations.
For one, it sets a precedent. From now on, it will be easier for anyone to rebuke Chavez next time he starts talking out of turn or steps beyond democratic norms. He no longer will get away without comment when he abuses democracy of any kind.
That may lead to less pretense among real democracies that Chavez is a legitimate leader and then some hard questions about why this lout is considered the leader of a democracy like any other.
Ultimately, it may lead to questions about whether he really belongs in power. The answer is, he doesn't, and it's an impressive irony that it took a king to say it.