Chávez Gaining Support
by Steven Dudley, Miami Herald
ZNet, March 12, 2005
Caracas - When former Ecuadorean President
Abdalá Bucaram addressed a rally last month on his return
home from eight years in exile, he vowed to follow a path that
he believed would make him popular again: that of Venezuelan President
"I come to Ecuador to copy Chávez's
style with a great Bolívarian revolution," Bucaram
declared to the applause of about 20,000 followers in his home
city of Guayaquil.
Bucaram's return was short-lived. Authorities
quickly revived the corruption charges that had driven him into
exile in Panama in 1997, and he fled the country again.
But his use of Chávez in an attempt
to gain political cache illustrated the ripple effect around the
region from the Venezuelan's brand of politics -- populist, leftist
and, much to the dismay of Washington, strongly anti-United States.
From Argentina, where Chávez followers
in a poor Buenos Aires neighborhood clamored for his presence
during a recent visit, to Ecuador, where Bucaram called for a
Chávez-like "revolution of the poor," the Venezuelan
leader's ideology is gaining sway in Latin America.
And with Chávez's oil profits surging
and his domestic popularity at an all-time high -- a recent poll
showed 70 percent of Venezuelans approve of him -- he has embarked
on a series of regional undertakings that would counterbalance
U.S. influence in the region.
"His ideas have already expanded"
to other nations, said Armando Durán, a former Venezuelan
Principal among these ideas is Chávez's
dream of uniting Latin America, much like his hero Simón
Bolívar, the 19th century independence hero who tried but
failed to forge a country stretching from Peru to Venezuela.
"The Bolívarian revolution
is a reality. It's original. It's not like the Cuban revolution.
It's a political revolution," Durán added.
Chávez's regional ambitions were
evident in Havana last month, where he launched a Bolívarian
Alternative for the Americas -- his answer to the U.S.-backed
Free Trade Area of the Americas -- before a crowd that included
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and former Nicaraguan President Daniel
Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales, two radical leaders who are
seeking the presidency in their home countries.
And while Chávez has poured part
of his windfall oil profits into social programs at home and may
ease Venezuela away from its dependence on oil exports to the
United States, he has been trying to use other parts of his oil
wealth to reach for Bolívar's dream of one Latin America.
Chávez has signed energy agreements
with Argentina and Brazil, and in a show of solidarity, offered
to buy $500 million in Argentine government bonds just four years
after that country suffered the biggest foreign debt default in
The Chávez administration has also
tried to win over some neighbors with offers to sell them cheap
oil and natural gas in return for teachers, health workers or,
in the case of Argentina, beef. Venezuela's state-run Petroleos
de Venezuela is negotiating with Brazil and Argentina to create
a regional oil conglomerate, tentatively called Petrosur, that
would facilitate those types of swaps.
At the same time, Chávez has called
on regional leaders to resist signing more trade agreements with
the United States, an attractive proposal for Latin Americans
who already see the FTAA as a plan to dominate their trade.
He has called President Bush "the devil," endearing
him to many who are tired of U.S. hegemony in the region.
"He presents an alternative program,"
said Larry Birns of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
"He's becoming more and more of an articulator that the time
has come for a mixed [state and private enterprise] economy, a
mixed economy that is suitable for Latin America."
But Chávez's plan goes further
still. His government is bankrolling a new television network,
Telesur, that has plans to broadcast news, sports and educational
programs across Latin America beginning this summer.
Its organizers say it will not be a Venezuelan
government mouthpiece, but Chávez is providing 70 percent
of its funding, fueling concerns that the organizers of the network
may not have a choice in the matter.
Part of Chávez's influence around
the region appears to be by design, part by happenstance.
His rise to prominence comes at a time
when Latin America is shifting to the left. In recent years, Brazil,
Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador have all elected presidents
who campaigned on leftist platforms that included attacks on market
reforms that Washington promoted in Latin America through the
Brazil also has been promoting more regional
cooperation, and in Bolivia the anti-globalization movements toppled
one government in 2003 and threatened the tenure of another.
"Chávez isn't alone,"
Morales, the Bolivian congressman and opposition leader, told
the newspaper La Crónica in Mexico City recently. "People
of Latin America support him."
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