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The anti-American
Embattled Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is cracking down on dissent, and ramping up his hostility to the U.S.
 
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez  reportedly looks for opportunities to challenge the U.S.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly looks for opportunities to challenge the U.S.
Corbis

How popular is Chávez at home?
Hard economic times and repressive policies have worn at his appeal as the socialist liberator of the poor. The global recession of the past two years hit Venezuela particularly hard. The country relies on oil for 90 percent of its export earnings and nearly one third of its gross domestic product, so the effects are severe when demand and prices drop. With Chávez’s nationalization of oil companies chilling foreign and corporate investment, Venezuela’s economy has stagnated in recent years, and inflation has soared above 25 percent; a brutal currency devaluation last year drastically undercut spending power for imported goods. These events stirred public anger, as did reports of growing wealth among Chávez’s family members. In September, Chávez suffered a serious blow when his opposition won about half of the popular vote in legislative elections and secured nearly 40 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. The vote, said one opposition leader, marked “the beginning of the end for President Chávez.”

Is he truly in danger of being toppled?
The risk is growing, but he’s using everything at his disposal to tighten his grip. Venezuela’s light-skinned elite generally loathes Chávez, who is a pardo—a darker-skinned Venezuelan from a poor family. But his expansion of literacy and health care among the poor, funded in part by intermittent nationalization of companies and expropriation of some opponents’ property, have won him a loyal following. Throughout his public career, Chávez has demonstrated an uncanny capacity for survival. Overthrown in a coup in 2002, he reclaimed the presidency just two days later; he beat back a recall election in 2004. In 2009, he won a referendum to abolish presidential term limits, enabling him to run for office—yet again—in 2013 when his current term expires. In recent months, Chávez has centralized power and cracked down on independent media. Before the new assembly with his diminished majority convened this month, he used the lame-duck assembly to place new curbs on dissent and grant himself expanded powers. And when times get tough, Chávez has his perpetual foil: the United States.

Why is Chávez so anti-American?
Poverty on the continent has long been blamed on American imperialism and on American support for oligarchs in the region. After joining the Venezuelan military as a young man, Chávez gradually developed a radical stance toward Venezuelan society’s vast inequities. In 1992, he led a coup against the government, with rebel soldiers seizing installations throughout the country. But the bulk of the army remained loyal to the government, forcing Chávez to surrender. Chávez delivered a brief televised message that the revolution was aborted—“for now.” That phrase, por ahora, became a rallying cry for poor and disaffected Venezuelans and sealed Chávez’s identity as a revolutionary who would challenge the wealthy and the U.S.

Does that antipathy remain?
It may be stronger than ever. After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Chávez said Venezuela was ready to begin “a process of rapprochement” with the new president, whom he called “the black man.’’ But the thaw was short-lived, as the Obama administration spoke candidly about its objections to Chávez’s policies. Larry Palmer, President Obama’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, told the U.S. Senate that there were “clear ties between members of the Venezuelan government and Colombian guerrillas.” Chávez immediately rejected Palmer as ambassador; soon after, the U.S. ejected Venezuela’s ambassador in Washington. U.S. policy, Chávez said, has changed “for the worst” under Obama. The White House, meanwhile, has grown increasingly alarmed by Venezuela’s outreach to stated enemies of the U.S.

Who are Chávez’s international allies?
Chávez has long emulated the anti-American defiance of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and he enjoys influence among other Latin American leftist leaders, including Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. He once called former Mexican President Vicente Fox a “lapdog of empire,” a stinging epithet in a region sensitive to American hegemony. Leaders in the region “live in fear of Chávez turning against them,” said a U.S. State Department official, “because they worry that their people might not take their side.” But Chávez has cultivated ties across the globe—often with regimes that are far more hostile to the U.S. than any in Latin America. Chávez has called Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe a “freedom fighter,” and on a state visit to Tehran last year (see below), he declared Venezuela’s “unwavering allegiance to Iran.” Chávez has negotiated energy deals with China and has enlisted Russian help in building a nuclear power plant in Venezuela. He’s also been buying arms abroad—ostensibly to defend Venezuela from U.S. aggression.

Is he a genuine threat?
There is little fear that Chávez will lead the Venezuelan army in an attack on Texas. But to spite the U.S., Chávez is undermining efforts to isolate Iran, and may even give terrorists and spies a means to enter the Americas, so they can cross the U.S. border. Chávez dreams of going down in history as another Simón Bolívar, the South American liberator who led the rebellion against Spain; he thus looks for every opportunity to challenge the U.S. “If imperialism ever has the idea of challenging Venezuela,” he once declared, the aggressor will “have to deal with Bolívar’s people.”

Iran’s man in Caracas
Last October, Chávez made his ninth visit to Tehran, strengthening relations with a regime the U.S. considers a deadly menace. Weekly IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas began in 2007, and the U.S. State Department reported that officials in Caracas often fail to stamp the passports of the arriving passengers or enter them into an immigration database—suggesting they have high-level clearance. Venezuela has a number of oil production and shipment deals with Iran, and a proliferation of Iranian banks and factories in Venezuela has intensified suspicions that Chávez may be helping Iran elude international sanctions. Israel has questioned whether an air-defense system Venezuela is buying from Russia is actually intended to defend Iran instead. Chávez’s public comments only fuel the speculation. “We will stand by Iran no matter what,” he said last fall.

 

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