Big ideas, big target

February 27, 2005|By Richard O'Mara

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Now and then in Latin America, a political figure emerges who awakens the aspirations, and fears, not only of his own people but also of his neighbors as well. Cuba's Fidel Castro is one, Juan Peron of Argentina another, Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile a third. A new one, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, recently poked his head above the horizon.

Each of these leaders conforms to the mystical if archaic stereotype of the Latin caudillo - the autocrat on horseback. Each had his own big idea. Mr. Castro was, and is, a communist. General Pinochet was a military despot whose message was, "Do it my way or die." Mr. Peron, dead now almost 31 years, was a charismatic president who imposed a cult of personality upon Argentina, for which he was overthrown by the army.

Much evil is attributed to these leaders and their programs, some good as well.

Mr. Castro raised the level of public health and education in Cuba dramatically.

General Pinochet, corrupt and murderous as he was, turned the management of his country over to zealous Chicago School economists who cut import tariffs to near nil - a revolutionary act for a Latin American country. He also abolished the social welfare system, leaving the poor to their own devices, and filled the streets with the unemployed. Nevertheless, all this pain produced prodigious gain: Chile's economy today is the most dynamic in South America.

Mr. Peron's mixture of populism, thuggish syndicalism and social benefits affected a sizable distribution of wealth in a country that was strongly oligarchic.

These three leaders had another thing in common: Each attracted the attention of the United States, hostile toward Mr. Peron and Mr. Castro, quietly supportive in the case of General Pinochet. Mr. Chavez has drawn some attention as well.

Mr. Chavez, something of a neo-caudillo, burst on the scene in 1992: He tried to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez and went to jail for it. In 1998, he won the presidency legitimately and by a landslide vote. He survived a coup four years later, and recently won a smashing victory in a national referendum on his government. He has the votes, and knows it.

He is clearly loathed in Washington, which traditionally is averse to leaders whose policies tilt toward the have-nots. Like Mr. Peron, he is a populist who returns with almost kamikaze vehemence the disdain he receives from Washington.

He accused the Bush administration of "fighting terror with terror in Afghanistan," of conniving with the plotters who tried to overthrow him and, more recently, of siding with Colombia against Venezuela in a dispute in which Venezuela alleges that the Colombians kidnapped a Colombian guerrilla leader on Venezuelan soil.

In an effort to distance himself from the superpower to his north, which buys a lot of Venezuelan oil, Mr. Chavez has set out to sell or barter the stuff in China and Argentina. He was here in Buenos Aires recently to pick up some cows.

In Brazil, Mr. Chavez unveiled his own big idea when he told about 2,000 representatives of an organization called the Movement of Workers Without Land that his government would expropriate about 6 million unused acres in his country and distribute it among people like those he was talking to.

That, indeed, is a big idea. According to one calculation, it amounts to 3.4 percent of Venezuela. If implemented, it would contribute to the fulfillment of a primal dream of the Latin American left: the destruction of what remains of the latifundia, the big unproductive expanses of land held by single families or small groups of the very rich or, today perhaps, multinational corporations.

Mr. Chavez is antithetical to globalism; he is a passionate socialist and hater of capitalism, which, he told his audience in Brazil, "is the cause of the great problems of inequality in the world."

Such language, which he seems to throw off at every stop during his travels, are red meat to the people running things in Washington, and one should expect some sort of punitive response sooner or later. Actually, the process of demonizing Mr. Chavez may have already begun.

Condoleezza Rice, at her recent confirmation hearing before members of Congress, warned of Mr. Chavez's "bad influences in the region," owing largely to his warm relationship with Mr. Castro. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration is "preoccupied" over the Venezuelan president's rough treatment of his political opponents and the media, which they largely own . So far, there has been no mention of weapons of mass destruction or al-Qaida connections. But stay tuned.

One wonders if Mr. Chavez appreciates how risky it can be to run against what the United States construes as its interests in Latin America. Maybe he believes gunboat diplomacy is no longer an option available to the White House. Maybe he thinks because he was fairly elected and cannot readily be lumped among that cadre of tyrants and other enemies of democracy President Bush has trained his sights upon, that his political legitimacy will protect him. Maybe he should think again.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor of The Sun.

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