Hugo Chávez was an ongoing irritant to a number of American officials and other detractors. He reveled in taunting the United States, most famously by calling former President George W. Bush "the devil" at a United Nations speech, even remarking on the smell of sulphur in the room during Bush's visit there. He moved to consolidate his own power as president of Venezuela (not always successfully) and was rightly cited by Human Rights Watch for his "open disregard for basic human rights guarantees." But the full picture of Chávez, who died this week, is more nuanced. And the demonization of Chávez as some sort of baby Castro is not only off the mark, but reflective of far broader and deeper troubles between the United States and Latin America.
Like many leaders, Chávez claimed to care about his country's poor. Unlike many other leaders, he did something about it, dramatically reducing the rate of poverty (especially extreme poverty) in Venezuela. That's a better record than we've had here in America, a far richer country. In fact, it was Chávez who came through for Americans struggling to pay their heating bills, providing cut-rate Venezuelan oil to needy Americans. This was annoying to U.S. critics, who suggested there was something unseemly at best about accepting discounted oil. But that's an absurd accusation, given the fact that Venezuela is already a leading supplier of oil to the United States (the enormous, landmark Citgo sign in Boston is a reminder of that). When Rep. José Serrano of New York, whose South Bronx district is home to some of the nations' poorest, was asked whether he was simply letting Chavez make political points by providing the cut-rate oil, he had a perfect response: anytime Exxon-Mobil wants to make political points in his district by providing lower-cost oil to his constituents, they are welcome, Serrano said.
Chávez had a certain cartoon character quality about him. He hosted a TV show called Alo, Presidente! (Hello, Mr. President!) during which he took calls from Venezuelans and heard their problems. It was sort of a cross between Meet the Press and Sabado Gigante, and would have been seen here as somewhat undignified and a huge waste of time (Chávez could go on for eight hours, taking calls). But it made Venezuelans feel as though their president cared about them—or at least, was listening.
Chávez's anti-American comments (directed more at Bush and other specific entities than at Americans themselves) were understandably not received well here. Even if Americans don't like their current president all that much, they don't like it when foreign leaders make snide personal comments. In an interview with Chávez a half dozen years ago, I asked him directly about the anti-American graffiti I saw on the walls in Caracas. Chavez shrugged. You did not see those four years ago, he said, referring to the pre-Bush era. And anyway, he added, you see the same thing in Moscow, in Beijing, even in Washington, D.C.—there is a whole global protest against Bush! He exclaimed. He had a point.
And as for the poor relationship between the United States and Venezuela? The relationship between the two nations has never been worse, Chávez told me—but this is a positive thing, he said, because things can only improve from there. You know, he explained, how you are having a fight with your husband and you are throwing dishes at each other, but then you talk, and things get better? It was a silly but revealing comment. Chávez was a provocateur and displayed adolescent behavior. But he wanted to get attention for a reason. He felt his country had been too ignored for too long.
The problem with Chávez, or Venezuela, was not that Chávez was making sophomoric comments about the United States. He was not a dictator, as he has been described. He was an authoritarian. Troubling, yes, but he won elections that were deemed free and fair by international monitors. Ironically, Chávez was egged on by U.S. detractors who needed a new Latin American bogeyman (since Fidel Castro was in poor health), and made Chávez their poster boy. But the issue is not Chávez himself. The deeper question is, what has gone wrong with our relationship with Latin America that people are being democratically elected by making comments critical of the United States?
Chávez's death could provide a new opportunity for improved relations with Venezuela and indeed the region. Let's hope both sides take advantage of it.