by Marcelo Ballve
Chavez, Venezuela's voluble president, acted the class clown at the recently concluded Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, and many in Latin America lapped up his antics at the expense of the United States and its allies.
The leftist leader trashed protocol, ridiculed the event as a mere photo-op and "a waste of time," and cracked jokes as often as possible, most notably a barbed comment aimed at U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Chavez's quips got lengthy coverage in Latin American newspapers. It was obligatory for correspondents at the summit, even those working for fairly conservative major media like Mexico City's Reforma and Brazil's O Globo, to include a sidebar on the Venezuelan's antics.
It's not just the irreverence that is striking a chord, but the truth many perceive in his remarks. Like any court jester, Chavez brings up uncomfortable realities, or at least hyperboles that graze uncomfortably close to truth.
According to the Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12, reporters were awaiting the conclusion of a key meeting between the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and President Nestor Kirchner of debt-crushed Argentina, when Chavez passed by.
"Have you seen the photos that they've been sending from Mars?" he asked the crowd, referring to images of a flat, scorched-looking landscape the U.S. space vehicle has been transmitting.
Chavez's punch line: "It looks like the IMF has been there too."
Free market reforms and onerous debt payment schedules devised by Washington D.C. and the IMF--where U.S. officials wield the decisive influence-have worsened inequality and ravaged economies throughout Latin America. The region's economies actually shrank in the last six years as reforms took hold, and 44 percent of Latin Americans now live in poverty, according to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
"We still have time to turn back, but we are there, at the gates of hell," Chavez said of the situation, pushing for his roundly ignored proposal for an international humanitarian fund for Latin America.
He exaggerates. But it is this stark economic reality that formed the urgent backdrop to the talks, not the U.S. offers of a temporary worker program aimed at placating Mexico or its usual offers of token aid.
Like the student provocateur who speaks aloud what has crossed the mind of the entire class, Chavez is not afraid of being singled out for U.S. criticism. Mexico City's leftist La Jornada daily called him the "punching bag" for U.S. officials.
But Chavez knew that behind closed hotel room doors many Latin American delegations were probably nodding in approval and chuckling over his remarks. His main allies, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, and the influential Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, tempered their comments far more than he did, but they join him in opposing much of the U.S. agenda, including the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the embargo on Cuba.
Behind the scenes, Lula, who is South America's main power broker, shared a warm embrace and a private lunch with Chavez.
Chavez's relations with other governments in the region serve as a barometer of their current attitude towards Washington. Chilliest, if not positively hostile, toward Venezuela are key U.S. allies Chile, Mexico (which already have free trade deals with United States) and Colombia (the recipient of billions in U.S. financial and military aid).
"We're not afraid, we're not afraid of anything," were Chavez's first combative words upon arrival, responding to accusations by the White House that he was plotting, with Cuba's Fidel Castro, to "destabilize" Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia, countries simmering with growing leftist or indigenous movements.
"I don't have anything to do with that. The real destabilization is caused by neoliberalism." Chavez added. Neoliberalism is the popular shorthand for Washington's "market-friendly" prescriptions.
Castro and Chavez make no secret of their contacts with like-minded political leaders across the Americas. The popular view is that whatever mischief their alliance has cooked up pales in comparison with the impact of the austerity measures imposed by the IMF.
In his summit address, President George W. Bush excoriated Cuba and said oil-rich Venezuela, Bolivia and Haiti were places where democracy was at "risk." Condoleezza Rice already had warned Chavez that he must allow a recall process against him to go through "unhindered, unfettered."
Chavez bristled at the U.S. hectoring and the insinuation that he would try to sabotage the recall. He told the Associated Press that Rice must be "illiterate" and recommended she read up on Venezuela's Constitution.
In 2002 the democratically elected Chavez was overthrown for 48 hours by a business-military coup that was applauded by the White House. Most regional leaders, however, howled that democracy had been subverted. The Venezuelan opposition is now counting on the recall to oust him.
Bush, backtracking, said U.S. concerns over the recall centered merely on the "integrity" of the process.
Chavez approved. "That," he said, "is a more intelligent statement."
January 14, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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