The rise of Venezuela's left-wing President, Hugo Chavez, is a lesson in what can happen when the U.S. disses an entire continent. After 9/11, when most Latin American nations refused to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush testily turned his back on the region but not before he was widely accused of backing a failed 2002 coup against Chavez, Bush's loudest critic south of the border. Washington denies the charge, but the perception of U.S. bullying won Chavez international sympathy. His anti-U.S. Bolivarian Revolution has been roaring ever since. At the same time, U.S. influence in Latin America is perhaps at its lowest ebb. As the Bush Administration cuts development aid to the region, Chavez, who controls the hemisphere's largest oil reserves, is giving cash-strapped neighbors discounts and favorable financing on Venezuelan oil and billions of dollars in loans. That largesse, coupled with Latin America's sharp antiglobalization mood, is helping a stunning number of leftists win or lead in Latin presidential elections today.
Chavez's growing ties to Iran have prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to brand him a threat to hemispheric stability. "I sting those who rattle me," Chavez said recently in his weekly TV address, "so don't mess with me, Condoleezza!" But goading America into messing with him has so far proved to be a formula for success for Chavez, 51, who is widely expected to win re-election in December.