Americas Summit: Will Chávez Steal the Show Again?

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From left: Chip Somodevilla / Getty; Hassan Ammar / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez


Hugo Chávez owned the last Summit of the Americas, in 2005. Thanks to rising oil prices, the Venezuelan President, who controls the hemisphere's largest crude reserves, suddenly had the petro-wherewithal to spread his gospel of a more socialist Latin America free of Washington's imperialist interference. At that summit, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Chávez led large and raucous demonstrations against President George W. Bush and U.S. plans for a hemispheric free-trade pact, which effectively died at the gathering.

Can Chávez carry the same swagger into this weekend's Americas summit in Port of Spain, Trinidad? At first glance, his decade-old Bolivarian Revolution (named for South America's 19th century independence hero, Simón Bolívar) seems as potent as it was four years ago. Chávez, still Venezuela's most popular political figure, just won a referendum that will let him run for re-election as long as he wants. His small but radical leftist bloc of Latin American nations (including Bolivia and Nicaragua) has helped blunt U.S. hegemony and ushered non-hemispheric allies like Russia, China and Iran into America's backyard. His backers insist that the Wall Street implosion has vindicated Chávez's rejection of free-market capitalism as the solution for Latin America. And his critics, who call him a neo–Fidel Castro, still have to acknowledge that he's been thrice democratically elected. (Vote on Chávez in the TIME 100 poll.)

Yet in contrast to the summit in Mar del Plata, Chávez isn't expected to hold the regional reins in Port of Spain or breathe the same anti-U.S. fire. More moderate leftists like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are regarded as Latin America's standard bearers today. Even if the global economic crisis has borne out Chávez's condemnation of capitalism, it has also sent oil prices plummeting — and his populist largesse along with them. At the same time, some supporters worry that as Chávez accumulates more power at home, he's jeopardizing his democratic cachet. This month he prodded Venezuela's Chavista-dominated National Assembly to pass a law that virtually eliminates the elected office of mayor of Caracas, the capital — a seat that was recently won by an opposition candidate — and replaces it with an administrator appointed by Chávez. (See pictures of President Obama behind the scenes in Europe.)

But perhaps the key difference for Chávez at this summit is that he doesn't have George W. Bush to kick around anymore. Barack Obama, in fact, is the anti-Bush, a liberal welcomed by most of Latin America who is far harder for Chávez to attack as a yanqui imperialista. "I think Chávez may be trapped at the Trinidad summit," says Nikolas Kozloff, who endorses Chávez's social policies and is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. "Populism thrives on conflict, but now with Obama in power, that's more difficult to achieve." After Washington and Caracas expelled each other's ambassadors last year, Kozloff adds, "Chávez faces a difficult choice: either proceed with his rhetorical strategy against the U.S. and risk alienating those in Latin America who want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, or come to a diplomatic understanding with the White House."

[UPDATE: Chávez and his allies had declared that they would not be signing the summit's final declaration in order to protest U.S. policy on Cuba. But when the presidents of the U.S and Venezuela met in Trinidad, they appeared to exchange warm handshakes. According to a Venezuelan communique, Chávez told Obama: "With this same hand I greeted Bush eight years ago. I want to be your friend." Obama reportedly responded in proper and polite Spanish, mucho gusto — or "my pleasure."]

Chávez appears to be groping for the right approach to Obama, oscillating in recent weeks between acerbic criticism and conciliatory praise. When Obama said that Chávez aids Colombia's Marxist guerrilla violence (which Chávez in fact has renounced), the Venezuelan President shot back that Obama had "the same stench" as Bush. But when the U.S. Coast Guard called Venezuelan authorities last week for permission to board a Venezuelan boat involved in a cocaine bust, Chávez called it a "positive signal that never would have happened" under Bush.

Not that Obama can dismiss Chávez in Trinidad. Chávez may end up being around as long as Fidel Castro was; and like Castro, he is still well regarded in Latin America for enfranchising the poor and for his willingness to stand up to Washington. No one is asking Obama to embrace Chávez and his strident anti-Americanism, but it would behoove him not to make the same five-decade-long mistake his nine predecessors made with Castro and needlessly alienate the hemisphere by trying to isolate Chávez. Says Bernardo Alvarez, Chávez's former ambassador to the U.S. and now head of the development bank for Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA): "Chávez has changed the hemisphere, and the U.S. has had to change with it. Obama will have to change too."

Chávez, however, will need to make changes as well. In years past, say his critics, he could get away with some of his more authoritarian impulses because Bush was getting away with so many of his own. But Bush's exit may throw a brighter international spotlight on measures like the new Caracas government law — which to many observers makes Chávez look as if he's nullifying a democratic election to spite his opponents. In recent weeks the Venezuelan President has moved to wrest control of ports and other infrastructure from opposition governors and mayors, declaring corruption charges against some of them while seemingly ignoring complaints about official venality among Chavistas.

Caracas' opposition mayor, Antonio Ledezma, who is a holdover from the discredited Venezuelan élite that Chávez overthrew a decade ago — but who won the capital last December because of voter anger at rampant violent crime and deficient city services — calls the new law "an atrocity" and "the final blow against decentralization." Chavistas like National Assembly Deputy Carlos Escarra say that's a "grand falsehood" and insist the law was a constitutionally legitimate move "to strengthen the federal district's administration."

Those same Chavistas add that the U.S. has scant right to criticize Venezuela's policy on its national capital when residents of Washington, D.C., still aren't allowed representation in Congress. But it's the sort of two-wrongs-make-a-right rebuttal that won't fly as well in the post-Bush era, says Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a think tank in in Washington that has often been sympathetic to Chávez. Birns feels Chávez needs to more now than ever guard against his "self-destructive tendencies and not risk his democratic credibility" if he wants to stay relevant. "One of the things at stake in Trinidad," says Birns, "is whether Chávez remains a hemispheric factor to be reckoned with." He most likely will. He just won't own the stage the way he did in 2005.

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