A continent and a house of cards

As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez grows bolder, Uncle Sam could find a new national security crisis south of the border.

Darren Bernard

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s favorite nickname for President George W. Bush is, “Mr. Danger.” In speeches across the South American country, Chavez bashes Mr. Danger to ennoble his cause and warn the poor masses of Yankee imperialism – that is, of course, when he doesn’t refer to the U.S. president as a hit man, a “terrorist,” or a “devil.”

And the crowds love it.

The Venezuelan leader since 1998, Chavez represents a dangerous new resurgence of socialist ideology in South America. From Argentina to the Dominican Republic, Chile to Brazil, the socialist, power-hungry left is taking control. Despite the nearly ubiquitous anti-corruption, social reform, anti-U.S. stances taken by the continent’s political candidates, corruption and extreme poverty endure. In most cases, things have gotten worse.

Venezuela is no exception. Since first taking office, Chavez has positioned himself as the martyr of all South Americans, implementing aggressive social welfare policies, raising taxes on private, external investment, and endlessly badgering the United States for its “imperialist” foreign policy. In the mean time, like all tyrants, Chavez has curtailed civil liberties, nearly every economic freedom (he calls capitalism “the road to hell”), and media independence to the Cuban degree.

This year the annual Freedom of the Press survey places Venezuela second to last in the Americas, with a press freer only than Cuba’s. Having steadily dropped in the rankings for the past seven years, Venezuela now ranks below Kyrgyzstan, Egypt and Pakistan for its lack of media liberties. The decline, reports the survey, has been “reflected in the government’s enactment of legislation prohibiting the broadcast of certain material, its intimidation of and denial of access to private media, and the continued harassment of journalists.”

Caracas has been equally effective in squashing financial freedoms. The 2004 Index of Economic Freedom begins its report for Venezuela, “President Hugo Chavez has succeeded in strangling Venezuela’s private sector.” This year, the Index of Economic Freedom put Venezuela only two notches above Iran in terms of economic liberty. As a leader of the masses, Chavez’s time in office has seen poverty levels increase by 10 percent, unemployment steadily rise to more than 16 percent, billions of dollars of oil money disappear, and public debt inflate from $27 billion to $44 billion.

Teachers have been muted. Elections have been compromised. Labor unions fear for their existence. Churches are under the watchful eye of Chavez cronies. In nearly every form, Venezuelan civic society has been effectively squashed.

In foreign affairs, Chavez has cuddled up to Iranian leaders and created friendly relations with the North Koreans. He has alienated the Colombian government by supporting drug-running, Marxist rebels there. Caracas has even sent troops and funds into neighboring countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua to support rebel communists aiming to topple those countries’ struggling democracies.

I go could on for days, but my point is this: Chavez is giving Washington more headaches than any Latin leader since Castro and his buddy Che Guevara were fomenting insurrection all those years ago. And what’s most surprising is that unlike Castro or Daniel Ortega or the FMLN, Chavez is relatively popular across all of South America.

While supporting communist insurrections around the continent, Chavez has led a successful (though expensive) PR campaign by buying Argentine and Ecuadorian debt, financing co-operatives and building housing for poor Cubans. He’s Santa for poor South Americans, and with control over 15 percent of the U.S.’s very expensive oil supply, a very wealthy Santa at that.

All Chavez asks in return is for the recipients of his kindness to choose between his camp and Uncle Sam’s. Chavez’s interference in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries “may cause some discomfort,” a Latin American diplomat recently told The Economist. “But if you break publicly with Chavez you’re playing Bush’s game.”

In the immediate future, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have many options with Chavez. Even if the Bush administration were to open Alaska to drilling or break policy and enact tougher fuel use standards, we still couldn’t wean ourselves from Venezuelan oil for decades. And by then, it is likely Chavez will have already made China its main customer.

What the federal government can do is support the disenfranchised parts of Venezuelan society (which, pre-1998, were the upper- and middle-classes) in their bid to unseat Chavez.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved money for propaganda broadcasts to rival a new, pro-Chavez, Latin American television channel. And the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed “a national-security vote,” should create new U.S.-made jobs for Nicaragua, Guatemala, and among other nations, Honduras.

But there remain doubts as to whether the Bush administration is ready to do what it takes to rebuild U.S. reputation south of the border. Three years ago, when Bolivia’s pro-U.S. president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was facing an unbridgeable budget deficit and growing protests at home, he went to Washington to look for $150 million to make ends meet. The Bush administration refused, creating an impossible economic situation for the Bolivian government. In a matter of months, de Lozada fell from power, and Bolivia has been plagued by unrest since.

The kicker: If recent polls are to be trusted, Chavez is now the most popular political figure among Bolivians.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]