It's been a pretty good week for Hugo Chávez. In the wake of televangelist Pat Robertson's ill-conceived call for the Venezuelan leader's assassination (or perhaps, on second thought, just kidnapping, or a dinner date), Jesse Jackson has flown down to offer his support, and at least some of the reports to emerge from the media flurry prompted by Robertson's gaffe leave the impression that Chávez is, all things considered, not such a bad guy.
As the Houston Chronicle notes, the populist Chávez—whose 1998 victory at the ballot box was preceded by a failed military coup in 1992—remains a kind of icon for many on the left. One Reuters report titled "Campaign to ring Chavez alarm fails to resonate" painted him as a benevolent, baby-hugging leader who's been the victim of "largely unsubstantiated Bush administration accusations." Even the American Enterprise Institute's staunchly anti-Chávez Marc Falcoff suggested that he was essentially a "nuisance," not so much a cause for serious concern as a character in "Latin America's latest opéra bouffe."
But one need not approve of murder as a diplomatic tactic to view Chávez—who's recently said he'd like to govern until 2030—with a wary eye. Though he came to power thanks to the appeal of a radical anti-corruption, anti-poverty platform, Venezuela still ranks near the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, and poverty has risen under his rule. (As Thor Halvorssen, recent founder of the Human Rights Foundation, quipped to me this weekend: "Chávez loves the poor so much, he wants to create as many of them as he can.")
At home, Chávez has been eager to clamp down on a privately-owned media, most recently by way of a controversial media law. In an interview first published late last year pro-Chávez National Assembly member William Lara explained that the new law "neither limits nor restricts freedom of information," is in fact "a profoundly democratic law that places in the hands of Venezuelan citizens the possibility of participating in the communications message in both radio and television," shortly before clarifying that under the new rules "any insult directed at the President of the Republic, or at any other citizen, constitutes slander, injury and vilification." The organization Reporters Without Borders has chronicled a campaign of both legal harassment and threats of physical violence, often at the hands of the Círculos Bolivarianos, effectively private militia groups that Chávistas euphemistically characterize as "community groups." Those who signed a petition calling for an unsuccessful 2004 recall of Chavez have been similarly targeted, denied access to government grants, jobs, and microloans.
The Venezuelan president has also helped to undermine the rule of law by packing his country's supreme court with loyalists. A 2003 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found among the country's persistent problems:
the failure to enforce the new constitution, the perceived lack of independence of the branches of government, the growing concentration of power in the national executive, the impunity with which armed civilian groups and death squads conduct their activities, the tendency to confrontation and to denigrate the traditional political opposition on the part of the government, the constant attacks on journalists and the news media, the tendency to militarization of public administration through the increasingly prominent role of the armed forces, the growing radicalization of political stances in the context of widespread public discontent with the failure to meet social demands, controversies over the exercise of trade union rights, and the climate of harsh political intolerance and, in relation to the inter-American system, the repeated and persistent failure of the State to comply with precautionary measures granted by the IACHR[..]
But if thuggery begins at home, it does not end there—which is perhaps the real reason for outsiders to worry about Chávez. He has been a source of political—and probably also financial—support for Bolivian demagogue Evo Morales. His famously cozy relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has grown so close that, late last year, a law was passed granting Cuban judges and security forces jurisdiction within Venezuela. In short, Chávez trades Venezuelan petrodollars for help controlling his own population. Some fear that, should Castro die while Chávez remains in power, Venezuelan cash could help keep Cuba communist. And as fast as oil keeps pumping out of Venezuelan wells, those same petrodollars keep propaganda pumping from the largely Venezuelan-funded Telesur network.
There's also no small amount of evidence to suggest that Chávez's government has provided support—in the form of both sanctuary and materiel to the Marxist terrorist group FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The question of how to handle Chávez, however, remains thorny—and not just because the U.S. imports some 15 percent of its oil from Venezuela. Robertson's controversial remarks may have ultimately done some good if they shine a spotlight on the Venezuelan president, as this Washington Post editorial suggests they have. But a too-aggressive posture could well backfire . Already, Chávez has used the Robertson flap as a pretext to suspend permits for foreign missionaries. More importantly, though, overt U.S. hostility could fuel nationalist support for Chávez by giving credence to his longstanding claims that the U.S. orchestrated the failed 2002 coup against him and harbors plans to, as Robertson so elegantly put it, "take him out." Resentment of perceived U.S. interference may have helped Chávez rebound from a pre-coup popularity slump.
Venezuelans don't seem to share their leader's vitriolic hatred of the United States. A Pew Global Attitude Survey found that Venezuelan attitudes toward the U.S. and its market system were among the most positive in the world—far more so than in, say, Western Europe. That may be why Eliézer Otaiza, who heads Venezuela's land reform program, explained in a recent interview that it was necessary to foment hatred of the United States in preparation for "war" with the hegemon to the north. Chávez clearly hopes to use conflict with the U.S. to rally support for himself as an alternative power center—both within Venezuela and throughout Latin America.
If the proper response to Chávez is far from obvious, though, the proper attitude could not be more clear. Flush with revenue bolstered by record-high oil prices and imbued with a bizarre vision of himself as a kind of Latin American Don Quixote, Chávez may be a clown—but he's a scary clown whose regional influence is deadly serious.