Not long ago, in the middle of one of the four-hour talkathons he stages weekly on national television, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez grabbed a baseball bat and made the following declaration: "Fidel: Look out! The home run will go precisely over the city of Havana. This will happen on Aug. 15. I am going to hit [it] so hard that it will land in the gardens of the White House!"
Here is an incoming missile that few in the Bush administration, or Washington, are expecting, because so little attention has been paid to Latin America since Sept. 11, 2001. It may well be coming nonetheless: a political crisis that could draw Washington into a Latin conflict for the first time since the 1980s.
The protagonist is Chavez, who faces an Aug. 15 recall referendum that threatens to cut short the "Bolivarian revolution" he claims to have launched in Venezuela, a country of 24 million people that supplies the United States with 13 percent of its oil. As his rant suggests, Chavez sees himself as another Castro standing up to U.S. imperialism. Only his motivation is less ideological than psychiatric: For years this former military coup-plotter has had grandiose visions of himself as a second Simon Bolivar -- and a dangerous paranoia about his "enemies" at home and abroad.
In fact, for all his frothing about the "devil" who he has said occupies the White House, Chavez has drawn only modest attention from the Bush administration. For a while President Bush, like Bill Clinton before him, ignored the man entirely. Then the White House foolishly welcomed a short-lived coup against him in April 2002. Since then the administration has sheepishly followed Venezuela's unraveling from a distance, while supporting dogged efforts by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center to broker a democratic remedy.
For an oil producer reaping the bonanza of rising prices, that disintegration has been astonishing. From 1998, when Chavez was first elected on a platform of demagogic populism, until 2003, real per person income in Venezuela fell 27 percent. Chavez presents himself as champion of the poor, but the percentage of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty increased from 21 percent to 33 percent during his first four years in office. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan middle class has been devastated. Tens of thousands of private businesses have closed down, and many of their owners have left the country. The state oil company, the country's only reliable source of income and once a proud bastion of professionalism, has been purged and politicized. Outside experts say it is being run into the ground.
Chavez has meanwhile become a friend to otherwise friendless dictators, demagogues and terrorists around the world. He was one of the last heads of state to visit Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; he has called Robert Mugabe a "warrior for freedom." More significantly, he is the best friend Castro has had since the death of Leonid Brezhnev. Venezuela supplies Cuba with nearly 80,000 barrels of oil a day at cut-rate prices, and in return imports thousands of Cuban teachers, doctors and sports trainers. Chavez is widely suspected to have to have provided sanctuary to Colombia's narco-terrorists and to have bankrolled a leftist-populist movement that overthrew Bolivia's democratic president last year.
It is virtually unprecedented for Washington to do so little about such a considerable Latin American menace; Venezuela, after all, is of far greater economic and strategic importance to the United States than were El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s. Not that Chavez appreciates the omission: Instead, copying Castro's playbook, he insists his real opponent is not the Venezuelan coalition of political parties, businesses, labor unions and church leaders calling for his removal, but Bush. He recently claimed that the recall vote would determine whether Venezuela "once again will become a U.S. colony." He is prosecuting members of a civil society group that has helped to organize the referendum and monitor its fairness. Its alleged crime is treason -- accepting $53,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy.
What is to be done? Washington can hope that as many Venezuelans will vote against Chavez on Aug. 15 as have signed their names to referendum petitions in the past two years, and that observers from the OAS and Carter Center manage to ensure a fair count. In that case he will be removed from office and elections held. Even if reelected, Chavez probably would be chastened -- and Venezuela's democracy would endure.
Yet equally likely is the "home run" of which Chavez boasted -- a referendum victory, fueled by fraud, the billions Chavez is spending out of the state oil company's reserves, or legal manipulation after the fact. Even if the opposition peacefully accepts such a result -- and it may not -- Simon Bolivar's self-styled successor may feel emboldened to accelerate his revolution, at home and in the region. Therein would lie a challenge that the next administration in Washington would find hard to ignore for another four years.