'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Chavez Welcomes Bush to South America: He Thinks He is Columbus 

According to the Los Angeles Times:

"If you truly want social justice in the world, order the immediate withdrawal of the troops from Iraq," Chavez scolded Bush, scoffing at the president's recently declared commitment to reverse inequality in Latin America. "Use that gigantic [military] budget for investments in food and health."

The charismatic, media-savvy Chavez seized upon the presence of Bush, who is widely unpopular in South America, as an opportunity not to be missed. Chavez's self-proclaimed status as a target of "the empire" has won him many admirers in the resurgent left, and Bush's "anti-Chavez" tour, as some here have called it, provided fresh rhetorical ammunition.

In Brazil, a country not recently known for heavily attended public protests, there was outrage over the Bush visit:

Some arrived clutching banners telling "Mr Butcher" to go home. Others brought effigies of "The Warlord" dangling miserably from a hangman's noose. A handful dressed up as the grim reaper, while some women paraded through the streets with stickers of George Bush and Adolf Hitler placed tastefully over their nipples.

Fabio Silva had other ideas. He stuffed a sock into his mouth and left it there for three hours. "It means that the Brazilian authorities have tried to censor us - to pretend to Bushy that we don't exist," said the 21-year-old student, using the president's nickname in these parts after briefly removing his gag. "It means that we are remembering the silent victims of Iraq. And it means that the censorship will not shut me up."

If President Bush needed a reminder of his growing unpopularity in Latin America, it was here in Sao Paulo in the shape of a 10,000-strong human wave marching noisily through the financial district.

There was none of the famed Brazilian hospitality. Even before Mr Bush arrived in Brazil on Thursday to begin a six-day tour of Latin America the protesters were out en masse. "Persona non grata" read one placard. "Get out you Nazi" said another. In case the message still hadn't hit home, there was one other taunt - this time in English: "Bush, kill yourself."

Even the New York Times could not deny the depth of popular protest against Bush in Brazil:

The police have clashed with thousands of protesters, many carrying signs calling Mr. Bush a murderer and a fascist. A group of Mayan priests in Guatemala said Friday that they would “purify” a sacred site of “bad spirits” after Mr. Bush visits it early next week.

Security was intense, the most elaborate ever for a visiting head of state in Brazil, local officials said. Two helicopters hovered above Mr. Bush’s extended motorcade here Friday, and his hotel was ringed with military sharpshooters and other security officers, though demonstrators burned an American flag close by.

Bush and Chavez went head to head yesterday, even if Chavez delivered his remarks from nearby Buenos Aires, with the tacit approval of the Argentinian government:

I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives,” Mr. Bush said, speaking at a joint news conference with Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

But while President Bush pressed that point, President Chávez led an “anti-imperialist” rally at which he railed against what he called American hypocrisy and greed, and called Mr. Bush a “political cadaver.”

The Bush plan is ridiculous,” Mr. Chávez said at the gathering in Buenos Aires, across the Río de la Plata from Montevideo, Uruguay, Mr. Bush’s next stop. “He thinks he is Columbus, discovering poverty after seven years in power.”

Mr. Bush kicked off his tour — the longest Latin American trip of his presidency — by completing an agreement with Mr. da Silva to increase the development of ethanol as a leading alternative to oil. Mr. Chávez’s influence in the region stems from Venezuela’s oil wealth, which he is using to build a loose coalition of left-leaning, anti-American countries.

But Mr. Chávez quickly shot back in an interview on a popular morning television program in Argentina, dismissing the ethanol plan as “a crazy thing, off the wall.” He accused the United States of trying “to substitute the production of foodstuffs for animals and human beings with the production of foodstuffs for vehicles, to sustain the American way of life.”

Bush administration officials have sought to play down Mr. Chávez, contending his influence is overblown by the news media and noting that South American polls show him with regional ratings no better than Mr. Bush’s. President Bush refuses even to mention his name.

At the rally Friday night, Mr. Chávez said he had watched Mr. Bush on television in Brazil and concluded that “he is afraid to say my name” because Mr. Chávez’s vision of “21st century socialism” is advancing in the region.

Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, terrorism, security, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq,” he said mockingly. “He seems incapable of developing even a single idea.”

Beyond the popular discontent with Bush and the US that is being exposed by Bush's tour, a discontent that Chavez has encouraged and championed, there are a couple of other things were noting.

First, to state the obvious, South America is becoming more socially and economically independent of the US as it emerges from the catastrophe of the neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Leaders need not present themselves as supplicants when a US President deigns to visit, and the public is not shy about confronting a President, like Bush, they hold in contempt. Of course, this is somewhat of a simplification, as the evolution away from neoliberalism is not clear and consistent, yet the trend is unmistakeable, with the countries of the continent looking towards regional integration and trade with other parts of the world as an alternative to direct US investment.

Second, as an extreme instance of this trend, Chavez does not censor himself out of concern as to how he will be perceived by people in the US. During a tour to Venezuela in 2005, with a group of others from the US, I would periodically hear one of them say that Chavez was too sharp in his rhetoric, and that he should be advised to tone it down. I did not share this perspective, nor do I do so today, because, while it may make it more personally comfortable to publicly support Chavez in this country when he is more restrained, such an attitude is based upon a lack of understanding that it will ultimately be Venezuelans, Argentinians, Chileans, Bolivians . . . in short, South Americans . . . who will determine whether Chavez succeeds or fails in his challenge to US imperialism in the region.

Chavez speaks to them directly, in their language, having concluded that liberal Americans will do little, if anything, to protect him if Bush goes after him again. Indeed, in a typical instance of liberals catering to the power elite, some actually go out of their way to attack him, as Nancy Pelosi did when she called him a thug. Chavez has always been politically astute, and he doesn't waste time seeking the approval of people who will do nothing for him. He survived the coup of 2002 when the populace poured out in the streets to demand his release from prison, at a time when the entire US political establishment expressed its willingness to accept the coup leaders as the new government.

Lastly, the depth of anger towards Bush displayed by the protesters foreshadows the explosion of hostility that will erupt if we attack Iran. Yet again, as he has frequently done in the last year, as he did here before the UN, Chavez is energizing opposition to this impending attack, even when he does not make specific reference to it. He has been the most active, most vocal opponent of it outside the Middle East, and he deserves great praise for his effort to make the protection of the Iranian people an issue of global concern.

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