What Is Hugo Chávez Up To?
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has set alarms ringing with his efforts to create a global anti-American coalition.
When Muammar al-Qaddafi faced worldwide condemnation this past winter as he brutally struck back against a popular uprising, the Libyan dictator may have taken comfort from knowing he had at least one friend left: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The two have forged close political and economic ties during Chávez’s dozen years in office, and the Libyan leader had already bestowed the Qaddafi International Human Rights Prize on his Latin American ally and named a soccer stadium in Benghazi in his honor. In February, Chávez repaid the favors by offering to mediate a peaceful solution to the fighting—at a time when the rebels seemed likely to triumph—and defending his old friend on Twitter: “Teach another lesson to the extreme right-wing little Yanquis! Long live Libya and its independence!”
Chávez’s quixotic intervention was only the latest of his efforts to play a role in world affairs larger than most leaders of a midsize Latin American country might hope for. But Chávez has emerged at a fertile moment in world history. The apparent waning of U.S. power has opened up the possibility of a new geopolitical order, and the worldwide financial crisis and the rise of China have shaken the conventional wisdom that capitalism and democracy are superior to the alternatives.
Chávez has seized the moment by forcefully declaring his intention to change the world. “What we now have to do is define the future of the world. Dawn is breaking out all over. You can see it in Africa and Europe and Latin America and Oceania,” he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2006. “I want to emphasize that optimistic vision. We have to strengthen ourselves, our will to do battle, our awareness. We have to build a new and better world.”
Of course, that speech is better remembered for Chávez’s characterization of President George W. Bush as the “devil,” and his claim that the General Assembly chamber, where Bush had spoken the day before, still smelled of sulphur—only the most legendary example of Chávez’s frequent and colorful denunciations of the United States.
Chávez’s torrid rhetoric has earned him both admiration—in a 2009 opinion poll of several Arab countries, Chávez was the most popular leader, by a large margin—and fear. And he has backed up his anti-American rhetoric by courting nearly any country that challenges the United States, including Iran, Russia, China, Belarus, Libya, and Syria.