Latin lampoonings

December 11, 2006

Hugo Chavez, the newly re-elected president of Venezuela, has at various times this year referred to President Bush as the Devil, a donkey, and Mr. Danger. Sober analysts of foreign affairs should be deeply troubled by these jibes, but they're so dopey it's hard not to be amused. Certainly the alliterative Mr. Chavez is plenty popular among Venezuelans. Now he says he's going to make his country "really, really red."

But let's not panic. Communism has run its course and it's unlikely that Venezuelans who are enjoying the fruits of high oil prices would want to plunge in just as Cuba is on the verge of heaving itself out. Mr. Chavez is spending money like crazy on social programs and though that runs counter to free-market economics it's hardly what you'd call Totalitarianism.

Here's our guess: Smart aleck humor has a pretty short shelf life. Venezuelans will keep chortling for a while as Mr. Chavez needles the U.S. president, but eventually they'll tire of the antics. The pendulum will swing back.

Unless, that is, Mr. Bush decides to react to his continuing provocations. Then they just might go on forever. For 40 years, the U.S. has played into Fidel Castro's hands in Havana, shooting itself in the foot year after year in the belief that it could shake his grip on power. To do the same now against the perceived socialist threat of Hugo Chavez would be absolute stupidity. Don't rule it out.

There's one big difference between Venezuela and Cuba, though, and that's oil. Cuba's traditional export is sugar, which is something the U.S. is quite happy to do without, especially since imports would undercut American sugar producers. Oil, on the other hand - that's a serious business. Venezuela is a sufficiently important supplier that it can't really be given the cold shoulder.

Four years ago, the Bush administration supported a coup attempt against Mr. Chavez; it failed quite spectacularly. Our suggestion is to chalk that one up to experience, and don't try again.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment would do better to think about why leftists are gaining in popularity throughout Latin America - Mr. Chavez spent last week on a triumphant tour of South America - and why the free-market ideology is faltering. If a sound argument can be made against the socialist course that Mr. Chavez and his allies in neighboring countries are pursuing, the U.S. shouldn't be afraid to make it. And if Mr. Chavez responds with more Borat-like jokes, the sensible thing would be to grin and bear it.

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