Comment: Larry Birns on Venezuela and Chavez

Mon Nov 19, 2007 10:48am EST

Larry Birns, Director of Council on Hemispheric Affairs: Hugo Chávez cannot be faulted on his democratic lapses, because there have been few of these. This is why he has proven to be such a frustrating adversary to Washington policy makers in that he hasn’t thrown many home-run pitches to State Department batters – that is, there are no political prisoners, no firing squads, and no arbitrary arrests that are familiar to many U.S. allies around the world. While Chávez has been maddeningly lean on substance when it comes to irritating U.S. interests, he has been very generous in creating situations where he easily can be made to appear to be erratic, presumptive, violating the rules of protocol’s niceties and good behavior, and incapable of respecting the canons of diplomacy.

It is there to be seen that Hugo Chávez is doing some of the most innovative thinking in all of Latin America. At the very time that the U.S. is at its nadir in terms of regional relevance, such transformative ideas as the Venezuelan leader’s various social missions, or the use of some of the state oil company PDUSA’s profits from record oil sales being diverted to social spending on the poor, or his use of petrodollars to speed to poor neighborhoods in the U.S., as well as poor countries throughout the world, various grants and concessions on oil prices, and his notion that Latin America has reached the point where it should decide whether the time has come for it to declare autonomy from the U.S., are examples of true generosity and self-enlightenment policy. With all of these good works operating on his behalf, why does he have grounds to be demeaned, discounted, and dismissed by lesser figures than himself, like when Spain’s King Carlos shouted at Chávez the other day “why don’t you shut up”, after he had repeated his accusations against extreme rightwing former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar as being a “Fascist?”

Without question, Hugo Chávez has turned out to be a public relations disaster and a person who feasts on confrontation and diatribes. Yet his derelictions are clearly more bark than bite, and his ordinary transactions are filled with good will and cheer. He is a million light years away from being a Pinochet, nor is Venezuela anything near to being akin to what Argentina was under military rule during the ‘Dirty War’.

But Chávez eclipses his own notable contributions to improving the region’s agenda and wounds his own hemispheric standing by the rants, reversions to childish imbecilities, and petty insults against his opponents, even though there is more fact than fiction in his claims: the Brazilian Senate is a “bunch of parrots”, President Bush may be a “donkey” when it comes to honoring the American people’s right to reliable information, and Aznar is, of course, a “Fascist”, but you don’t necessarily have to give wings to these birds.

The December referendum will far from inalterably change Venezuela, nor will the 69 articles do much damage to the country’s democratic fabric, except, arguably, for the provision relating to an emergency suspension of habeas corpus. Elements of the opposition have called for a delay in holding the referendum in order to give the nation an adequate amount of time to debate the issue. Since this is not merely a matter of timing, but also a question of how best to provide legitimacy to the process and slow one’s respect for democratic rights, why not commit a gesture of goodwill and show that you are not the Borstal boy that your detractors claim you to be? Delay the referendum until the beginning of next year – no one will be hurt by this and the cause of reconciliation just might be helped.