During Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Cuba, the brothers Castro tumbled out to meet the pontiff. But there was another noted visitor to Cuba at the same time—one there for cancer treatment who may or may not have met with Benedict—Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Chávez, who has replaced the Castros in the pantheon of US opponents in Latin America, has been in office since 1999. Deriving inspiration from the Cuban example, he has spearheaded the so-called “pink tide” engulfing the region during the 21st century. Even under Barack Obama, Chávez has been the White House’s Public Enemy Number One in the area since his election.
Not only has Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” breathed an appearance of life into the zombie that is socialism, his program has led him to directly oppose US supremacy in Latin America. He opposes free trade, preferring a species of autarky which he has failed to achieve. He has, however, managed to nationalize a number of companies both domestic and foreign-owned. Although roundly defeated in his radical attempt to alter the country’s Constitution in 2007, the electorate passed a more modest amendment two years later which abolished term limits. Chávez’s gathering allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere, as well as his supposed support for Colombia’s rather nasty FARC rebels, have worried Washington.
Despite American support, every effort to unseat Chávez—legal or otherwise (such as the 2002 attempted coup)—since his ascension to power has been unsuccessful. But he has suffered a few rebuffs, most notably in 2007 at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, when Spain’s King Juan Carlos (head of the sponsoring Organization of Ibero-American States) famously told him to shut up. While many of Chávez’s domestic and foreign opponents (the Spanish speakers, anyway) took up the cry, Chávez later accused the King of trying to revive Spanish colonialism.
Although Hugo’s parents are pious Catholics, he has been at odds with the Catholic Church since he came to power, famously calling it a “tumor” on society. In response, the country’s bishops have repeatedly condemned his authoritarianism. His much younger and charismatic opponent in the upcoming October presidential elections, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is devout. He rediscovered Catholicism while in prison in 2004 and was accused (then acquitted) of complicity in the 2002 coup. Chávez may be changing his tune: Whether or not he saw Benedict XVI, he recently asked Jesus on national television to cure his cancer and made a point of being seen at Easter Mass.
Chávez (and the rest of the pink tide) are extremely hard for American commentators to understand, especially since the policies he and like-minded Latin rulers espouse have been such failures wherever they have been tried. But his hold on power makes perfect sense in the light of a number of factors: the particularly Latin American Conservative/Liberal split; the conflict between Hispanidad and Indigenismo; Catholicism’s political role; endemic anti-Americanism; and our favoritism toward anti-clericals and indigenistas. A failure to understand these factors has bedeviled American foreign policy down south since the Monroe Doctrine and continues to impede our efforts there. Between the World Wars this led not only to the growth of local Falanges but also to a large amount of German and Italian influence; after 1945, such sentiments were harnessed by the communists and diverse leaders such as Peron and Paz Estenssorro. The pink tide’s leaders have exploited it as well. The great irony of all of this is that while Chávez has certainly used this sentiment, his views toward Venezuela’s culture and religion are as American as apple pie—as the social side of the abortive 2007 amendments show. In Chávez, our pollos have come home to roost.
Venezuela has been singularly unfortunate in suffering a particularly odious set of Caudillos in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Antonio Guzmán Blanco, Joaquín Crespo, Cipriano Castro, and Juan Vicente Gómez. From the latter’s death in 1935 until 1959, there followed a dreary succession of coups and other misadventures. Over the next four decades Venezuelans went to the polls and swung between two democratic parties—the liberal Accion Democratica and the Christian Democratic COPEI. It was these parties’ perceived inability to deal with economic woes that led to Chávez’s election—but in many ways his coming was a return to previous political traditions.
Capriles Radonski’s party, the Coalition for Democratic Unity, is a wide-ranging umbrella group encompassing both the COPEI (from which he sprang), the AD, and a number of other groups. In the September 2010 elections, the coalition won 64 of 165 seats, so if Capriles unseats Chávez (or his successor if Jesus does not grant the televised plea), he will still face a hostile legislature and a bureaucracy left over from over a decade of Bolivarian rule. Moreover, his allies are diverse—not always a good thing in the face of determined opposition. He may find the temptation to use extralegal means of cleaning house irresistible.
Given Chávez’s devotion to abortion, contraception, and gay rights, Capriles’s deep personal faith, and the Church’s role in mobilizing the resistance, post-Chávez Venezuela (should it come about through the October election) may be a difficult paradox for our leadership. It will be friendly to us politically but downright un-American domestically. In that event, we should thank heaven and let Venezuela get on with being herself.
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