Obama Gets Four More Years to Bash Hugo Chavez and the Latin American Left
President Obama went too far in throwing gratuitous insults at President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela on Friday, in an interview in Miami. By doing so, he not only offended the majority of Venezuelans, who voted to re-elect their president on October 7, but even many who did not. Chavez is fighting for his life, recovering from a difficult cancer operation; in Latin America, as in most of the world, this wholly unnecessary vilification of Chavez by Obama is a breach not only of diplomatic protocol but also of ordinary standards of civility.
Perhaps even more importantly, Obama's ill-timed aspersions sent an unpleasant message to the rest of the region. While Obama can get away with anything in the major media outlets, you can be sure that his remarks were noticed by the presidents and foreign ministries of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, and others. The message was clear: Expect four more years of the same failed, Cold War policies toward Latin America that President George W Bush championed and Obama continued in his first term.
These presidents see Chavez as a close friend and ally, someone who has helped them and the region; like millions of Venezuelans they are praying for his recovery. They also see Washington as responsible for the bad relations between the US and Venezuela (as well as the hemisphere generally), and these unfortunate remarks are additional confirmation. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas, Obama found himself as isolated as George W Bush was at the notorious 2005 summit. It was a sea change from the 2009 Summit, where everyone - including Chavez - greeted Obama warmly and saw in him the potential for a new era of US-Latin American relations.
To these governments, Obama's broadsides about Chavez's "authoritarian policies" and "suppression of dissent" have a bad smell, even ignoring the offensive timing. Venezuela just had an election in which the opposition, which has most of the income and wealth of the country, as well as most of the media, mobilised millions of voters. The turnout was 81 percent of registered voters, with about 97 percent of the voting-age population registered. The government did not "suppress dissent", nor has it done so in other elections; or even when the dissenters shut down the oil industry and crippled the economy in 2002-2003 - actions which would have been illegal and blocked by the force of the state in the United States. Peaceful protesters in Venezuela are far less likely to get beaten or tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets by security forces than they are in Spain, and probably most other democracies.
Yes, there have been abuses of authority in Venezuela, as in all of the hemisphere - as President Obama should know. It was Obama who defended the imprisonment without trial for more than two-and-a-half years, and abuse in custody, of Bradley Manning, which was condemned by the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Torture. It is Obama who has refused to grant freedom to Native American activist Leonard Peltier, widely seen throughout the world as a political prisoner, now in a US prison for 37 years. It is Obama who claims the right, and has used it, to kill American citizens without arrest or trial.
Venezuela is a middle-income country where the rule of law is relatively weak, as is the state generally (hence the absurdity of calling it "authoritarian"). But compared to other countries of its income level, it does not stand out for anything in the realm of human rights abuses. Certainly there is nothing in Venezuela comparable to the abuses by Washington allies such as Mexico; or Honduras - where candidates for political office, opposition activists, and journalists are regularly murdered. And much of the scholarly research on Venezuela under Chavez shows that it is more democratic and has more civil liberties than ever before in its own history.