Confronting Chavismo in Latin America

America’s approach to Chavismo should above all emphasize more constructive attention to the region as a whole rather than direct confrontation with Caracas.

What a spectacle it was last March to see Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez chasing President George W. Bush up the length of Latin America, from Buenos Aires to Port-au-Prince, shouting challenges and insults at the American leader. Gilbert and Sullivan could have turned this indirect single combat between the hemisphere's two most self-consciously macho presidents into a smashing comic opera. 

The absurdity of that week in March was compounded by the fact that Bush was not "wearing his cowboy boots", so to speak. In fact, on visits to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, he didn't even wrestle with any foreign security guards, as he had done in Chile in 2004, but by all reports constantly behaved like a diplomat discussing issues of real interest to Latins and Americans. The president focused on social justice, energy, trade and migration, substantially downplaying the U.S. security concerns that had become the increasingly abrasive core of U.S.-Latin relations after 9/11. Bush promoted a constructive alternative to the Chavez-style authoritarian populism that has spread in Latin America during recent years, without ever publicly uttering the Venezuelan president's name, and took at least a preliminary major step forward in relations with much of the region, particularly the largest country of them all, Brazil. 

In contrast, Chavez was wearing his paratrooper boots and was in no mood for conventional diplomacy. He began his safari in Argentina with a broadside at Bush, "the political cadaver." He went on to Bolivia, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Haiti, ceaselessly blasting the U.S. with the kind of wild-eyed fanaticism Klaus Kinski portrays so brilliantly as the opera-nut on the Amazon in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Chavez massaged anti-American crowds that rallied to him, though most of the "crowds" were not as crowded as had been expected. 

When speaking of U.S. policy in Latin America more broadly, we must examine the context, or what the Chavez phenomenon tells us about the region, as closely as how we respond to and interact with what is going on.

The Chavez Message and Style

Polls in Latin America have found Bush slightly more popular than Chavez, but nonetheless much of what the Venezuelan has to say resonates in varying degrees with many Latins, and much more so now than ten years ago. He has eagerly taken the role Fidel Castro held for decades as the region's foremost anti-American purveyor-in-chief of false hopes. If one flushes out the incessant ad hominem attacks on Bush and other American leaders, Chavez's message can be boiled down to three basic points: (1) most of Latin America is plagued by seemingly intractable poverty and inequality; (2) the United States and entrenched domestic elites and institutions are responsible for this; and (3) his 21st century socialism is the hope for the impoverished masses who seek a free and prosperous future. He is dead right on the first point, partly right on the second and dead wrong on the third.

Exploitation, inequality and extreme poverty have characterized Latin America since pre-Columbian times, which the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments institutionalized beginning more than five centuries ago. Most regimes since independence-whether autocracies, military dictatorships or democracies-have also failed to respond seriously to popular needs. Thus populism seems to be a life jacket for drowning people and nations, and, in one form or another, has won presidential elections in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, with near-wins in Peru and Mexico.

Chavez is a new-fangled old-fashioned caudillo who is far more inclined toward faith than objective analysis-and the faith is in Himself as the New Messiah whose gospel is 21st century socialism. Chavez talks of socialism but his style is more left-fascism, and his sermons and actions lead to an authoritarian paternalism that involves parents who exploit rather than nurture their children. In essence, his message is simple: "Go home gringo and leave Latin America to Latins, and Me."

This is the earthly salvation offered in some form or other by every Chavista messiah in Latin America today. But Chavez's gospel is just corked wine in a new bottle. Twenty-first century socialism is an aggressive and globalized rehash of the authoritarian statist paternalism that caused and sustained Latin America's underdevelopment over the centuries. It is the latest adaptation of the late-15th century Iberian view of God, leaders, institutions and the common man's place in that scheme of things that over many centuries put elites in charge and very deliberately made and kept Latin America the most unequal region on earth.

Chavez's "socialism" may survive for a while at home where his consolidation of power has sped up since Venezuelan voters gave him a new mandate last December. There he can throw billions of petro-dollars into usually failed or failing socialist schemes, and the schemes may survive as long as the dollars flow in, though some in the opposition told me in Caracas in February that the economy is in such bad shape that they don't think he can last two more years. Other countries that have fallen or fall under the spell of a Chavista messiah but lack the petro-billions will either crash more quickly or smolder on in the hopelessness that made Chavismo so appealing in the first place.

Confronting Poverty and Inequality