Chavez, Obama And A Plucky Rival
(first in an ongoing series of posts describing the negatives and positives of “The Obama Effect” abroad)
Hugo Chavez is not taking threats to his rule lightly. Jackson Diehl has an informative column on what Chavez’s biggest rival to date (and potential challenger to his rule in November), the young and popular mayor of Central Caracas, Leopoldo Lopez, has been up to. Look whose name pops up as a factor in the election and Chavez’s increasing paranoia.
So López was in the United States last week, making his case before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington and attending a meeting of mayors in Miami — where he was briefly able to tell his story to Barack Obama. His point is simple: “We are being obstructed because we can win. We have the votes and the government knows that. If it allows us in the race the myth that Chávez is the sole representative of the poor masses of Venezuela will be destroyed. So they are trying to force me out.”
…… Last week, when he returned to Caracas from Washington, López was detained and assaulted by a squad from the state intelligence service. Government media, meanwhile, shrieked with outrage about his meeting with Obama. The reaction was revealing: Chávez is clearly worried about the possibility of a new American president who, unlike George W. Bush, would be broadly popular in Latin America and might press for democracy in Venezuela.
That, of course, is exactly what López hopes for. “Venezuela has been very focused and disciplined about pursuing influence in the rest of the hemisphere, but there hasn’t been a clear alternative,” he told me. “What’s important is that the United States advances an agenda that makes a priority of democracy and human rights, as well as poverty alleviation and addressing inequality. Chávez has no answer to that.”
Obama’s popularity in Latin America is tied far less to policy and ideas than to identity. As a mixed-race American in a position of power, he would (initially at least) appeal to broad swathes of Latin American society based on this identity. Venezuela is in the midst of a low-level race and class war, waged for good and bad reasons by both sides and many in between. Chavez is leading the country to implosion (economic, political, social.. pick your poison) but he is not without his valid points, and the permenent end to misrule by a small element of society that is known to view the rest as inferior is no less preferable than an end to Chavez’s misrule. What has emerged is a competition between the left, the right and all in between, as some try to restore Venezuela to its constitutional moorings and others seek outright to replace Chavez’s self-indulgent strong hand with their own.
If elected, Obama could be a threat to Chavez, presenting Venezuelans with an alternative to the imperialist Yankee narrative Chavez has peddled successfully for years. Speaking to the people directly, as Kennedy and Reagan once did, he could make a difference in ratcheting down the rhetoric and the paranoid atmosphere Chavez thrives on increasingly to justify his policies.
If Obama can at least parley this competently, he succeeds in forcing Chavez to either raise his level of oppression to as yet unrealized levels (especially controlling the flow of free information) that further undermine his authority and endanger his rule or opt out of the conflict he’s trying to engender that America will not participate in and find another way to seize the momentum away from an Obama administration (which seems likely to be welcomed into power by every country save Colombia, who rightly see John McCain as their champion).
A leader like Lopez may be able to begin to heal the rifts within Venezuelan society, not in the least by bringing it back into Washington’s orbit and managing the oil industry competently, or at least act as a stop-gap for better leadership.
Optimism is in short supply but the hopes of many Venezuelans rest, however delusional, on the potential inherent in Obama as president. That their hopes have sunk so low as to pin them on a relatively conventional American politician shows the possibilities of the Obama effect, but not the consequences.
(I show Lopez in happier times, before he was beaten by security forces. Let us hope he is still alive after November).
Some excellent recent primers on Venezuela.
Challenges ahead for Chavez
Chavez boosting his loyalist candidates, banning others
Jon Lee Anderson on Chavez Full of great insight into his (mis)rule and personality, as well as the golden nugget that Castro’s retirement is likely to have a negative effect on Chavez’s competence because Fidel tends to be the voice of reason and moderation in their relationship and in his counsel to Chavez. Not a good sign for the safety of Lopez and other Chavez opponents.