Only Venezuelans can stop Chavez
Hugo Chavez keeps pushing Latin America into the pits of resentful Third-Worldism.
In a diplomatic flare-up that made front pages across the Spanish-speaking world, Spain's King Juan Carlos lost his patience with the Venezuelan Castro wannabe during the annual summit of Ibero-American nations in Chile.
Chavez had gone off in one of his rants about the evils of capitalism and called the former president of Spain, conservative Jose Maria Aznar, a "fascist." The current Spanish president, socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, responded that among "democratic governments" it was essential to disagree "without using personal insults," but Chavez interrupted him several times. And then Juan Carlos, sitting between the two verbal duelists, leaned forward, pointed his finger at Chavez and said, "Why don't you shut up?"
Even though in Latin America there is an undercurrent of patriotic wariness against the Spanish monarchy, against which wars of independence were fought almost 200 years ago, the round of applause after Juan Carlos told Chavez to be quiet showed that some Latin American diplomats at the summit wanted to say the same thing. Chavez's Venezuelan opponents, too, sided with the Spanish king.
"Yes, why don't you shut up once and for all and stop embarrassing us Venezuelans," wrote columnist Adolfo Taylhardt in the Caracas daily El Universal.
That a Venezuelan newspaper printed that kind of criticism shows that Chavez has not yet attained his goal of imposing a Havana-style tyranny. Yet all of Latin America should be alarmed at his looming dictatorship, almost 20 years after a plebiscite in Chile defeated Augusto Pinochet's attempt to remain in power and brought to a close the era of right-wing military dictators.
Now, with Chavez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, the Castro brothers, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa (maybe: the latter gave Chavez the cold shoulder at the summit), the region is sliding toward a new era of left-wing autocracy.
Oh, there has been criticism. Chile's Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley contrasted the vibrant economy and political stability of Chile with politically unstable Venezuela, still poor under Chavez despite windfall oil profits.
But Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who hosted the summit, lost credibility when the diplomatic mano-a-mano spun out of control. Can anybody else halt Latin America's slide?
The United States — paralyzed by the unpopularity of the Bush administration and bogged down in Iraq — can hardly say anything that is not counterproductive. Zapatero spends his time trying to be nice to dictators and dictator-wannabes in the vain hope they will change their ways. And the regional heavyweights — Argentina, Brazil and Mexico — have not raised the alarm, afraid Chavez will call them "imperialist lackeys" or whatever.
It's Venezuelan voters who can stop Chavez. The same ones who elected him three times, yet overwhelmingly tell pollsters they do not want their country to adopt Cuban-style one-party communism.
Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.