Why Pat Robertson's Statements Help Hugo Chavez

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has a new best friend this morning: television evangelist Pat Robertson. With his astonishing call for the left-wing leader's assassination last night—"I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it...We have the ability to take him out"—Robertson will have surely made Chavez an even more popular anti-yanqui icon in Venezuela, Latin America and around the world. Like his mentor Fidel Castro, Chavez thrives on threats from the U.S., real or perceived. He has long insisted that his foes are plotting to kill him, and this summer had armed civilians training with the Venezuelan military to prepare for what he says is an imminent U.S. invasion. A public effort to whack him, offered from the right-wing Christian establishment so closely aligned with President Bush, is just what Chavez needs to keep his approval ratings soaring as high as the price of the Venezuelan oil he controls, the largest crude reserves in the hemisphere.

Chavez is no doubt a source of concern for Washington, if only because Venezuela is America's fourth-largest foreign oil supplier. Chavez's erratic and often bellicose anti-U.S. rhetoric—he publicly called Bush an "ass____" in Spanish last year—as well as his desire to sell less oil to the U.S. and more to ideological allies like China, are hardly comforting as gas nears $3 per gallon. But neither is Chavez's embrace of nations like Iran, and nor is the fact that he's leading a politically potent (and, to the Bush Administration, potentially destabilizing) wave of angry neo-leftism in Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico.

But Chavez holds cards that make remarks like Robertson's all the more incendiary on the Latin American street, where language like "U.S. imperialism" suddenly has currency again. One is the past: Latin Americans have too many vivid and bitter memories of U.S. intervention in their countries—operations that sometimes included brazen assassinations —which is why the Bush Administration got burned by accusations it backed a failed coup against Chavez in 2002 (the White House denies the charge). Another is democratic legitimacy: Chavez, for all his authoritarian tendencies, is a democratically elected head of state who last year won a national recall referendum approved by international observers.

Perhaps an even more important factor is populist backing: leftism is on the rise again in Latin America for a reason, namely the burgeoning feeling around the region that a decade of U.S.-backed capitalist reforms has simply widened an already epic gap between rich and poor—and that the Bush Administration is indifferent to it. As Chavez uses his multi-billion-dollar oil revenues to fund the kind of social projects that Venezuela's legions of impoverished never saw from his kleptocratic predecessors—and to subsidize cheaper oil for his cash-strapped Latin neighbors—more people are willing to defend him, as most Latin leaders did last spring when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured South America.

As a result, any cold war-style talk about "taking Chavez out" with "covert operatives," as Robertson suggested, just confers more Che Guevara cachet on the former army lieutenant colonel (who himself led a failed coup in 1992). And since Chavez has threatened to cut off oil exports to the U.S. at the first sign of gringo aggression, it makes America's important Venezuelan oil supply look all the more volatile.