Tire of Chavez's US-Bashing?
By Vinod Sreeharsha
most Venezuelans, President Hugo Chavez's headline-grabbing
speech at the United Nations General Assembly was
just another day at the office. After all, Chavez
has been calling President Bush "El Diablo"
for over a month now, after his prior nickname,
"Mr. Danger," lost its luster. He describes
his Dec. 3 re-election bid as a battle between two
candidates, "Hugo Chavez and El Imperio."
But increasingly, analysts here are questioning
how much further President Chavez can take his anti-yanqui
rhetoric. Any rupture in commercial relations with
the United States would directly impact Chavez's
supporters. Plus, Venezuelans are increasingly fed
up with confrontational politics, having endured
them for more than seven years from both Chavez
and opposition leaders.
Though President Chavez maintains in excess of 50
percent support, only 16 percent of Venezuelans
agree with his confrontational style with the United
States, according to a recent poll by Hinterlaces,
a Venezuela polling firm.
Granted, that style that has previously served Chavez
well. His largest decrease in popularity throughout
his term, 30 percentage points, occurred during
the period of least conflict, between his re-election
in 2000 and the opposition work-stoppage in December
2001, according to Venezuelan pollsters Consultores
While many Americans may have heard President Chavez's
extreme rhetoric for the first time, William Brownsfield,
the US Ambassador to Venezuela, carries a list with
him of all the accusations President Chavez has
leveled at the United States. The tally exceeds
30, including blame for deadly floods, a local bus
driver strike that never occurred and the bombing
of a regional Electoral Committee office.
One often-repeated claim of Chavez's is that the
United States is about to invade Venezuela. Following
the 2005 UN General Assembly session, President
Chavez, while interviewed on "Nightline,"
cited as evidence documents referring to an Operation
Balboa. But Balboa turned out to be a war-game exercise
run by Spain. The original documents were not even
Venezuelan Frieda Lopez, when asked if she supports
her president, says, "For now, but my problem
is economic." Assessing the threat of a US
invasion, she says, "It is not credible."
If economic relations with the United States were
to rupture, President Chavez's supporters would
be among the most directly impacted. Many of their
social programs are funded directly by oil revenue,
and the United States still accounts for 50 percent
of Venezuela's oil exports, according to Veneconomia,
a Venezuelan economic consultancy.
And Che Guevara T-shirts notwithstanding, Chavez
supporters depend on US products as commerce between
the two countries has skyrocketed in recent years.
Eduardo Garcia lives in Petare, one of Caracas's
largest barrios. When he looks around his neighborhood,
Garcia says, he sees many Motorola cell phones and
GE televisions. Garcia says his Chavista neighbors,
like all good Venezuelans, "like to buy things,
especially imported products."
Garcia is positive about the Chavez government.
"I like the change it is generating,"
he says. When asked if he fears a US military invasion,
he laughs. "No, you really think the US will
To be sure, President Chavez has legitimate reasons
to lambaste the United States, which has tried to
undermine him several times since he was first democratically
elected in 1998.
In October 2001, Washington requested that Mr. Chavez
publicly retract criticism that he had made, in
Venezuela, of the US war in Afghanistan, well within
his right as a sovereign leader. Carlos Romero,
a political scientist at Central University in Venezuela
and an expert in US-Venezuelan relations, describes
such US hubris as a "provocation," and
a "turning point" in the deterioration
of US-Venezuelan relations.
Then the United States, despite its support of the
Democratic Charter adopted at the 2001 Summit of
Americas in Quebec, was quick to recognize the leaders
of a coup in 2002 that quickly failed. The United
States has provided opposition groups with millions
of dollars of support in the name of "democracy."
Lately, the Bush administration has been keeping
a low profile, Romero says, perhaps a disappointment
to President Chavez.
That could change after his performance in New York,
but even Chavez's Venezuelan critics hope not. Though
more diplomatic, they are not much bigger fans of
Washington than they are of their president.
According to a Consultores 21 poll last year, even
among anti-Chavistas, President Bush's approval
rating was a lowly 37 percent.
Michael Shifter, with the Interamerican Dialogue,
a Washington, DC-based think tank, says that in
Latin America "anti-Americanism is not restricted
to the left." He adds that "the left does
not like the US. The right does not trust the US."
Many anti-Chavistas fault Washington for negligent
foreign policy toward Latin America, focusing on
one-sided free trade deals and ignoring social development.
They also prefer Washington not provide any more
ammunition to President Chavez's anti-yanqui campaign.
Ramon Jose Medina, Secretary of International Relations
for Primera Justicia, a main opposition party, says
that the United States has mishandled almost every
dispute with Chavez since he became president. "Chavez
has emerged stronger each time," Medina says.
- New America Media