On Sunday night, shortly after he handily won reelection, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s controversial President-cum-dictator surprised the world in a speech to his constituents by announcing, “The Kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of love, of peace; the kingdom of justice, of solidarity, brotherhood, the kingdom of socialism. This is the kingdom of the future of Venezuela.” Not exactly the words one expects to hear from the mouth of a socialist.
Born into a Catholic family, Chávez has never displayed much religious fervor until recently. Indeed, he has criticized the Venezuelan Catholic heirarchy in the past for its support of what he calls the “traditional oligarchy,” and he is known to have once said he is “neither Christian nor Catholic.” But Venezuela is a majority Catholic country, as are most Latin American nations, and Catholic traditions are deeply rooted throughout the region, which could explain Chávez’ bizarre conflation of Christ with a political philosophy which, in most of the rest of the world, is atheistic, or at least, agnostic.
In keeping with his newfound religious fervor, Chávez continues to refer to President Bush as “the Devil,” and recently told a US diplomat, “I’m ready to talk, but if you’re going to talk to the devil, you have to have strong morals, because the devil has many ways to tempt you.” Such pronouncements lend Chávez a clownish air, but it would be a grave mistake for the US to dismiss him as such.
Chávez has repeatedly stated his intention to spread his socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” to the rest of the hemisphere, and he is backing his words up with petrodollars; subsidizing Cuba with more than $2 billion a year, and forging strong ties with the newly elected leftist presidents of Ecuador and Nicaragua. His mentoring of Evo Morales, leftist president of Bolivia is ongoing. He is also seeking to broaden his relationship with Brazil and Argentina, saying they, along with Venezuela, should become the “axis of a new economic, political and military bloc.”
With almost eight years in power under his belt, Chávez has already drastically changed the political and sociological landscape of Venezuela. Using the vast amount of oil revenue at his disposal since his nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry, he has created a welfare state unparalleled in the region. Consolidating his hold on education (and the minds of the people), Chávez has announced the establishment of a new national education curriculum which includes educating students away from “individualism” and toward “collectivism.”
In keeping with his stated goal of more “economic equilibrium” for the country, Chávez has also announced he will revoke private licenses in both the telcommunications and television industries as a first step toward nationalization. He is proposing additional legislation to further muzzle newspapers, which are already limping under stringent laws prohibiting criticism of the government and its officials.
Venezuela’s election laws allow, indeed encourage, citizens residing abroad to vote. In Miami, home to tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled the Chávez regime, nearly 11,000 Venezuelans voted in the Orange Bowl on Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening, Venezuelan government officials announced the results of the Miami vote. Not surprisingly, Chávez’ opponent, Manuel Rosales, won in a landslide: 10,679 votes for Rosales to 242 for Chávez.
Following his reelection in Sunday’s voting, Chávez promised to “deepen” his revolution by spreading “21st Century Socialism,” not only in Venezuela, but throughout the hemisphere. More ominously, he has proposed to eliminate term limits, setting himself up for a Haitian style “president for life” regime, and prompting some to worry that Chávez has begun to think of himself in Messianic terms; which he denies, saying, “I don’t think I’m Jesus Christ; far from it.”
Christ-like or not, the Bush administration and the ones to follow it, would do well to keep a close eye on St. Hugo and strengthen our relationships with Latin America. Unlike Castro, Chávez has the wherewithal to back his ideas up with enormous amounts of money. Latin America for the most part is a poor region, and as such is fertile ground for the siren song of the socialist “Bolivarian Revolution.” If we want to maintain our influence in the region, we need to help the Latin American countries to develop their potential in a meaningful way.
To not do so will be folly.