Ah yes, the plight of a web site editor who was planning on filling
this space with world opinion on our presidential election. Alas,
while the editor can''t miss a deadline the election is yet to be
decided, thus, opinion is worthless, if not nonexistent. So it''s
time to fill a few paragraphs with talk of the South American
continent''s biggest dirtball, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
For those of you who aren''t regular readers of my "Week in
Review" column, Chavez is a frequent visitor. But I haven''t filed
a "Hott Spotts" on the little dictator so here goes.
Hugo Chavez is the swaggering, demagogic champion of the poor
and working-class majority of Venezuela. 46 years of age, he
was a former army paratroop colonel who served a jail term for
attempting a military coup back in 1992. Elected president in
December 1998 with 58% of the vote, he has been consolidating
his power ever since, to the point where he can now be called a
dictator, albeit a rather benevolent one thus far. But the decade is
And Chavez could be around a lot longer than a decade. You
see, once Hugo won the ''98 election, he set a series of elections
which began to rid him of his political enemies. And the poor of
Venezuela granted Chavez his longed for new constitution which
allowed him to immediately run for a new 6-year term as
president this past summer, while the same document now allows
him to run for a second term should he so choose. The old two-
party system in Venezuela has been swept away.
Chavez initially ran on a platform of sweeping away corruption
and instituting a series of economic reforms. In his first 15
months in power, he hasn''t accomplished either.
Venezuela is a country of 23 million with immense potential due
to the fact that it is sitting on the greatest petroleum reserves
outside the Middle East. But it is also a nation that has suffered
for decades with massive corruption and, as is always the case in
these situations, it is the poor who suffer.
But you would think that if you had a ton of oil and were the
largest supplier to the U.S., you would be rolling in riches. After
all, with the tripling of oil prices in the last two years, Venezuela''s
oil revenues will exceed $21 billion this year.
When Chavez came into office, he promptly did the right thing
and sacked hundreds of allegedly corrupt judges...only to replace
them with his own equally corrupt cronies. And it was also at this
time that the independent Congress was stripped of its powers as
the Constitution was rewritten.
On his election night in ''98, Chavez proclaimed, "Don''t be afraid
anymore! We must put fear aside and salvage the Venezuelan
economy." But then Chavez commenced with the anti-business
rhetoric and voila! Over $8 billion in capital has fled to overseas
banks and the economy as a whole shrank 7% in 1999. Couple
this with the devastating floods and mudslides of last December
and you have a desperate country, even with all of that oil.
Chavez has been using some of the crude windfall for subsidizing
food and petrol, public works, as well as free medical care. He
has even proposed the manufacturing of the "People''s car," which
would actually encourage greater oil consumption. The president
is also afraid to relax the subsidies on goods like oil because he
wouldn''t know how to handle a rebellious populous.
One political scientist on the scene lays much of the blame for
Venezuela''s poor economic performance on crude.
"Oil is a sickness," he says. "It''s easy to produce...and it always
sells. As a result, it has asphyxiated the rest of the economy and
led the majority of Venezuelans to believe that if they are not rich,
it is because someone has stolen what belongs to them."
It would be one thing if Chavez were just the ruler of a little
banana republic. It''s another, however, when he wields the oil
card and at the same time is desirous of becoming the next
Castro, a leader of the developing world.
Hugo Chavez has long admired Fidel and recently hosted the
Cuban leader for 5 days. The two share a mutual admiration
society. And Chavez has also expressed admiration for China.
He claims that both Cuba and China "have good things" and that
the two have produced social benefits. In China this year, Chavez
said, "We invite China to keep its flag flying, because this world
cannot be run by a universal police force that seeks to control
everything." An obvious shot at the U.S., one of many he has
And at the OPEC summit he hosted in September, Chavez
proclaimed, "We have to do far more to promote and to work for
the reunification of Asian peoples." Bizarre, but par for the
Chavez has been skillful in his whole relationship with OPEC,
maneuvering his own oil minister to be the president of the cartel,
while he has wracked up the frequent flyer miles visiting all of the
member states, including becoming the first head of state to visit
Baghdad and Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War.
And as if that weren''t enough to worry the U.S., Chavez is very
chummy with Colombia''s guerrilla forces, an item I have written
of often in other columns.
Latin American analyst Michael Shifter writes of El Presidente,
"Venezuela is just too small for him. He fancies himself as a
regional and hemispheric leader, wants to play a major role on the
global stage, and is testing the limits of how far he can go in terms
of pushing his ideas and showing off his posture in global
Hugo Chavez is testing America''s patience. My guess is that
some time next year, it runs out.
[Sources: Larry Rohter / New York Times; various wire service
reports; your editor''s own knowledge of the topic.]