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Summit of the Americas and the Political Limits of Populism

The Summit of the Americas, to be held this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad, should in theory offer Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez a great opportunity to enhance his political profile. The war in Iraq, never popular in Latin America, lingers on and Washington is gearing up for a long fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile the financial meltdown on Wall Street threatens to wipe out many of the positive social and economic gains achieved throughout Latin America in recent years as the region is hard hit by recession.

It sounds like fertile ground for the colorful Chávez, who has long criticized U.S. economic and military interests. The Venezuelan leader travels to Trinidad in the context of long-simmering grievances, including ongoing U.S support for the futile drug war which has resulted in nothing but violence and mayhem in Colombia and Mexico; no progress on U.S. immigration reform which angers many Latino residents in the United States as well as their relatives abroad; U.S. stalling on climate change which has exacted a heavy toll on Latin America in recent years; no substantial change in official U.S. policy towards Cuba with the trade embargo still firmly in place.

Given that the U.S. will not change any of its fundamental policies at Trinidad, could Chávez ignite the conference in opposition to the United States? The Venezuelan leader certainly has a colorful history of such activities. In 2001, when he was not nearly as known on the world stage, the Venezuelan leader attended the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Surrounded by anti-globalization protesters, George Bush stayed holed up in his hotel. Chávez, who attacked U.S.-style free trade as inadequate, later remarked that the event was an epiphany for him and that protesters were unjustly subjected to “gas warfare” at a police “wall of shame” surrounding the city center. At the summit, the Venezuelan leader was repulsed by the bullying attitude of Bush and his entourage, intent upon ramming through the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA.

Four years later, Chávez again roiled the waters in Mar del Plata, Argentina during another summit of the Americas. Having by now deflected a U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat, Chávez was now much more confident and well known on the international circuit. Speaking before a crowd of 25,000 at a local stadium, Chávez famously baptized the site as the “graveyard of the FTAA.” The summit ended in fiasco: Bush returned to Washington empty handed without any trade deal.

Today the U.S. free trade agenda is in tatters and Chávez has significantly pushed his own more socially progressive trading arrangements. Indeed, just this week in advance of the Trinidad summit Chávez hosts his own meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA) in the Venezuelan city of Cumaná. Since its inception in 2004, ALBA has enhanced solidarity and reciprocity amongst governments in the region including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Caribbean island nation of Dominica.

The Cumaná summit should be Chávez’s coup de grace: after years of battling the U.S. free trade agenda, the Venezuelan leader seems to be building up something of a regional constituency. Indeed, one might argue that the meltdown on Wall Street vindicates Chávez’s more progressive economic philosophy since the Venezuelan leader has long railed against the excesses of market capitalism and deregulation.

Yet, ALBA is ironically foundering at precisely the moment when it should be ascendant.

With the exception of Venezuela ALBA nations don’t have much economic clout and it’s unclear whether the regional alliance will be embraced by major countries. While a host of small nations such as Antigua, Barbuda, El Salvador and possibly Ecuador and Paraguay may join ALBA in future this probably won’t alter fundamental power dynamics within the region.

What happened?

At this point, Chávez may be running up against the political limits of his own populist model. Like other Latin American populists, the Venezuelan leader has developed a highly emotional and paternalistic relationship towards his followers. In his rhetoric, the Venezuelan leader stresses his own personal crusade against vaguely defined internal and external threats. Through such rhetoric and his skillful mastery over the media, Chávez has been effective in politically mobilizing Venezuelan society and attracting attention from afar.

In the absence of perceived threats however populists run into trouble. While Venezuela still has a vibrant political opposition Chávez handily defeated his enemies in a recent constitutional referendum which will allow him to stand for indefinite reelection. Internationally, Chávez no longer faces the Bush White House and many Latin leaders want nothing more than to be granted a photo-op with President Obama in Trinidad.

Thrown off his game, Chávez has dealt with Obama schizophrenically. A recent article for The Hill about the upcoming Trinidad summit, amusingly titled “Chávez loves Obama, loves him not, loves him,” catalogues the Venezuelan leader’s contradictory statements. Prior to the November presidential election in the U.S., Chávez was upbeat about the prospect of a Democratic victory and remarked that he was looking forward to meeting “on equal and respectful terms” with Obama.

Reaching out to the “black man,” Chávez declared “Tomorrow the U.S. will have an election. The world awaits the arrival of a black president to the United States, we can say this is no small feat. ... We don't ask him to be a revolutionary, nor a socialist, but that he rise to the moment in the world.”

Days before Obama’s inauguration however, Chávez attacked Obama for linking Venezuela to Marxist guerrillas in Colombia. “We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC,” Chávez remarked. “He goes and accuses me of exporting terrorism: The least I can say is that he's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” Chávez added. Later on, the Venezuelan didn’t sound much more optimistic. “I don't have much hope, because behind him [Obama] is an empire. He's the president of an empire.” Laying it on pretty thick, he added that Obama had “the same stench” — the smell of sulfur that Chávez said he smelled on the floor of the United Nations in 2006 after “devil” President Bush addressed diplomats — as his predecessor.

Bizarrely pivoting back however, Chávez later said “There is still time for [Obama] to correct these views, though. We will wait and see, we will know him by his actions. He is really an unknown. No one should say that I threw the first stone at Obama; he threw it at me!” As Obama turned his attention to the economic recession, Chávez said “It’s regrettable, the crisis that the U.S. is living through. I recommend to Obama — they’re criticizing him because they say he’s moving toward socialism — come, Obama, ally with us on the path to socialism, it’s the only road. Imagine a socialist revolution in the U.S. Nothing is impossible.”

In advance of the Trinidad summit, Chávez has confounded the public once more with his contradictory views. At one point he said he would like to “reset” relations with the United States and that Obama had “good intentions.” Then however, Chávez explained that he was preparing his verbal “artillery” in advance of the Trinidad summit. “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don't know. We're going to see. We'll see what the pitcher throws,” Chávez declared. Calling the U.S. embargo against Cuba “absurd and stupid,” Chávez then switched into English and remarked cryptically that the upcoming summit would be “very interesting.”

What’s with all of the indecisive back and forth? As long as Bush was in power Chávez’s populist style politics served the Venezuelan politician well. Thriving on political conflict, Chávez was effective at mobilizing public opinion both domestically and abroad in support of such initiatives as ALBA. But now that the U.S. has “re-branded” itself, Chávez is in a quandary. Because the wider Latin American public may not view the United States as much of a threat anymore, Chávez will have to come up with a second act. Can Chavismo survive in the absence of obvious political threats? Over the past couple of months Chávez has seemed unsure about how to navigate the new political milieu.

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