A week or so ago, some Americans might have been hard put to recognize Hugo Chavez or identify his place in the political spectrum of Latin America.
But last weekend in Argentina changed all that. TV networks showed a flamboyant Chavez railing against America before an applauding crowd of 25,000 in a soccer stadium, while thousands more demonstrators were setting bonfires and breaking windows in protest against President Bush, who was attending a summit meeting of 33 other regional leaders.
Chavez, a former army officer who has become president of Venezuela, is using that country's oil-wealth as a platform to champion an anti-American brand of revolutionary socialism throughout Latin America. He has been supporting a variety of radical movements throughout the area and is particularly enamored with Fidel Castro and his communist regime in Cuba. He has also embarked Venezuela itself on an autocratic path while diminishing the institutions that are central to democracy.
President Bush wisely avoided any confrontation that might have afforded the Venezuelan leader any more publicity than he got this weekend. But Chavez has popped up on the Bush administration's foreign policy screen as a troublemaker who must be watched.
Chavez's influence was clearly felt at the summit meeting in Argentina, because though the United States, Mexico and 27 other nations voted to set an April deadline for talks on a free-trade zone championed by the United States, Venezuela joined with influential Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay to block that. President Chavez boasted that he had come to the summit meeting to "bury," the trade plan, arguing that it would "enslave" Latin American workers. He called the plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas an "annexation plan" that would destroy local industries and give America political and economic domination over the region. President Bush and Presidents Reagan and Clinton before him have supported the free-trade concept as one that would benefit both the United States and participating Latin American and Caribbean countries.
What bolsters Chavez's stature both at home and abroad is oil, the export of which brings in some $30 billion a year to Venezuela. It has been a bonanza of late due to its sky-rocketing market price. At home, Chavez has used the proceeds to improve public facilities, particularly medical, for the poor, thereby making them politically indebted to him. Abroad, he has succeeded Russia as Cuba's rich uncle, supplying oil to Castro at highly subsidized prices after the Russians cast Cuba adrift. In return, Castro has sent thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela, infiltrated, according to some Castro opponents, by Cuban military and security officers.
Venezuela supplies the United States with about 13 percent of its imported oil, and President Chavez delights in public tweaking of the United States by suggesting that he could sell that elsewhere, for example to China. Another recent taunt is that if the United States withholds spare parts for Venezuela's F-16 fighter planes, Chavez will give the jets to Cuba or China.
Chavez's muddle-headed concept of socialism for Latin America is often confusing. He says it is "to transcend the capitalist model," and that it is not communism, at least "at the moment," but is the alternative to communism, building a "social, humanist, egalitarian economy." Much of the time, his philosophy sounds less a vision for the future than a rant against what he decries as American "imperialism." He has also paid a state visit to Iran, praising the leadership of its mullahs.
Two potential negatives loom for Chavez. One is his dependence on oil and his reckless current spending of oil revenues based on oil's current high prices. If the bubble should burst, he would be hard put to continue expanding social services at home and the financing of revolution throughout Latin America.
The other problem is the inevitable departure from the scene of his comrade-in-arms, Fidel Castro. Castro is 78 years old and has had one or two recent lapses which suggest that he is failing in health. The likelihood of Cuba's continuing along the path of communism after Castro seems slim. Communism in Cuba is already discredited with the masses and is held nominally in place by Castro's reign of oppression. Cuba's people are the prisoners of a regime that offers them neither political freedom nor a free-market economy.
Neither communism, nor Chavez's woolly "not-communism-at-the-moment" kind of socialism seems likely to be a panacea for the challenges of today's Latin America.
John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: email@example.com