Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column incorrectly characterized Venezuela's oil production.  It is the fifth largest exporter.

Dealing With the Good and Bad Hugo Chavez

By Marcela Sanchez Staff Writer
Thursday, August 25, 2005; 6:03 PM

WASHINGTON -- I am starting to think that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez can have a calming influence on Latin America.

At a time when record oil prices are becoming an ever-increasing burden, the leader of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter is offering flexible financing not only to his close ally Cuba, but to most other Caribbean and Latin American nations. Chavez also promises more jobs and revenue in the region with plans to build a $2.5 billion oil refinery in northeastern Brazil and purchase Argentine oil tankers.

Just last week, when protesters crippled oil production in Ecuador, South America's second largest supplier to the United States, Chavez jumped to the rescue. Responding to requests from Ecuadorian officials, Chavez agreed to cover Ecuador's oil commitments, helping to calm the global market and to reduce the strike's fiscal impact on the struggling nation.

By golly, Chavez is a modern-day, Spanish-speaking Robin Hood.

Such a characterization is, of course, heresy in Washington. To listen to Bush administration officials, one would come to believe that Chavez is the greatest "negative force'' against democracy and the free market since the Cold War. He has been accused of supplying weapons to Colombian rebels, of financing Bolivian and Ecuadorian groups seeking to establish "Marxist'' states, and of being, with Cuban leader Fidel Castro's guidance, a "subversive'' everywhere else in the region.

The truth is that Chavez is a lot of both. He is the Robin Hood who supports the poor with the money of the rich, and he is the ideologue who pushes an anti-imperialist, socialist agenda.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has chosen to take on the Chavez challenge purely in terms of the latter. In the administration's rhetoric and in its thinking, Chavez is a communist, a meddler and, most damning, another Castro. And so Washington serves up decidedly old and desiccated solutions that smell of long-failed anti-Castro strategies.

During Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Latin America last week, a Pentagon statement reiterated concerns over the "menace'' that the Cuba-Venezuela axis poses to the region. Rumsfeld, on his third visit to the region in 10 months, stopped in Paraguay and Peru to shore up support among U.S. allies for what amounts to a policy of Chavez containment.

This kind of one-dimensional thinking blinds U.S. policymakers to the fact that Chavez's influence in Latin America is not all pernicious and, no matter how much it is hated, may be presenting solutions to Latin America's real problems in ways that Washington is not.

Latin America today is not in the midst of a Cold War where externally financed leftist rebel movements wage guerrilla warfare against democratic governments. Instead of taking up arms and heading to the mountains, an increasingly frustrated population is taking to the streets and demanding that their elected leaders deliver the goods promised by U.S.-touted reforms.

For all Chavez and Castro would like to take credit that this is their doing, and for all that Bush officials would like to give it to them, the fact is that such popular discontent is more the fault of democracy and free markets than an axis diabolico .

So the onus, in great part, is on Washington to help these countries prove that the U.S. liberal democratic model "is valid ... has a human face, and it delivers,'' according to John Cope, Latin America expert at the National Defense University.

This is why both Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo took advantage of Rumsfeld's visits to send an urgent plea to Washington to do a better job of opening the U.S. market to their products. According to Paraguayan press reports, Duarte told Rumsfeld that "Latin America needs the support of developed nations to strengthen its economies, because without such backing democracies in the region are at risk of failing.''

The success of democracies in Latin America hinges on the ability of their economies to reduce poverty and inequality, the true source of resentment and instability. Chavez's impact can go either way -- at times increasing instability, at times reducing it.

But as long as the Bush administration obsesses solely on the destructive side of Chavez, it will be distracted from the hard work necessary to help Latin American economies succeed. And as long as it avoids that challenge, as long as high oil prices continue, Chavez will be more than happy to offer a hand.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

© 2005 The Washington Post Company