November 16, 2007
WASHINGTON -- King Juan Carlos of Spain told Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to zip his lip on Saturday and the Spanish-speaking world went nuts.
Overnight, the king's "Por que no te callas?" -- Why don't you shut up? -- became a YouTube sensation and a downloadable ring tone. One industrious composer turned the king's choice words into new lyrics, giving the old warhorse "Que viva Espana" new, and somewhat amusing, life.
At the three-day Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, Chavez seemed to take every opportunity he could to pick a fight with the Spaniards. In particular, he targeted former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who wasn't present, calling him a "fascist," adding that fascists "are not human. ... A snake is more human."
When Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the current Spanish prime minister, took issue with Chavez's comments and attempted to express disapproval of the Venezuelan's personal attacks on a former leader "elected by the Spanish people," Chavez insisted on interrupting and repeating his "fascist" slur. The king, sitting at Zapatero's left, leaned forward, pointed straight at Chavez and uttered the now famous five words.
Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic weighed in with polls and opinion columns regarding an exchange some deemed historic. The unprecedented spat will mark "a before and after" in this kind of summit, according to the Spanish conservative daily El Mundo. When the king told Chavez "what someone should have told him long ago," it marked the end of tolerance for Chavez's "political bullying."
Writing in Granma, the official and only daily in Cuba, Fidel Castro said that "Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007, will be remembered in the history of our America as the day of truth. ... The ideological Waterloo," when Chavez stood firm in the face of an imperialism that will take us "to the suicide of our species."
Never mind that King Juan Carlos is a figurehead or Aznar a former prime minister of a country now with a left-of-center leader. To Chavez and Castro, the incident is part of a broader collision of two worlds where only one can come out the winner. Lacking representatives from the United States at the Ibero-American Summit, Spain became a stand-in for their haranguing. The conflict between Chavez and Spain, with its colonial past and its large investments today in Latin America, was reminiscent of "the glorious days" of Simon Bolivar, Castro wrote.
But if Chavez were more honest about the current state of affairs, he would have to recognize a reality that is much less black and white. Sure there are serious differences in Latin America today, not the least between a new, moderate and pragmatic left and an old left stuck in a Cold War mentality.
Attending the summit were mostly left-of-center leaders including Zapatero, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the summit's host, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. In their socialist agendas, they are presumably ideologically aligned with Chavez. But in their 21st century tactics, they have shunned the adversarial approach.
Tellingly, the summit's theme was "social cohesion" aimed at, as Bachelet put it, relegating Latin America's social and ethnic exclusion to a "bad memory" of the past. Among some of the more tangible results of the summit was the creation of a water fund, with a $1.5 billion contribution from Spain, to serve half of the 58 million people in Latin America still without access to drinkable water. Also, summit participants committed to establishing an emergency center in Panama to assist Central America when natural disasters strike, and the adoption of a protocol to guarantee access to retirement funds earned by about 6 million immigrants in the region and in Spain.
Even at the moment of the king's outburst, Zapatero was attempting to explain to Chavez what a more useful tactic might look like. "What I want to express is that mutual respect is a good way to work and to understand each other for the benefit of our people," he said. "You can radically disagree with ideas and with behaviors ... without having to disqualify anybody."
But Chavez probably was not listening, oblivious to how his antics trivialize what he supposedly cares most about. If only someone could download a certain ring tone to the Venezuelan leader's cell phone to remind him.