Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Who's afraid of the big bad president?

Nikolas Kozloff argues that the threat Hugo Chavez poses to the US is ominous and alarming. He fails, however, to take into account the changing world order

By Roger Lowenstein  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

Latin America, as the late Venezuelan author Carlos Rangel once wrote, has always had a “love-hate relationship” with the US. The love is expressed in its purest form: imitation. The hate, more akin to resentment, boils down to a frustrated desire to get the Yanquis’ attention.

Fidel Castro pulled it off in the 1960s, torturing the Kennedy brothers with his cigar and his Marxism, and now, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is giving us a rerun. At least, this is the refrain of Nikolas Kozloff, a British-educated American who has written Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Emerging Challenge to the United States.

Kozloff apparently believes that Americans have much to fear from Venezuela. His admiring study of Chavez, an up-by-the-bootstraps lieutenant colonel who tried and failed to take power in a coup and subsequently succeeded at the ballot box, is peppered with phrases like “in an alarming warning sign for George Bush,” and, “in an ominous development for American policymakers.”

Why does Kozloff think, as stated on the book jacket, that Venezuela represents a “potentially dangerous enemy to the United States?” Caracas is our fourth-biggest oil exporter, so maybe some day, the implication is, it could cut us off.

And Chavez, with his friend you-know-who in Cuba, has taken to taunting America and lobbying other Latin American countries against the brand of free-trade liberalism that Washington has advocated. Chavez has even been trying to form an energy alliance with Argentina and Brazil, for the ostensible purpose of using oil as a “weapon” against the gringos, and he has refused to permit US overflights in the war against cocaine.

Is this really worth getting all steamed up about? I lived in Venezuela during the 1970s, also a period of high oil prices and, not coincidentally, a time when the government was strutting its stuff as a regional (and vaguely anti-capitalist) power. Getting America to worry, or at least to care, was a high priority, as I realized when a friendly Venezuelan reporter eagerly asked me which of two left-wing political parties Americans “feared the most.”

One of these parties was known by the acronym MIR and the other as MAS. The truth was that no Americans I knew had heard of either. My own relatives could barely distinguish Venezuela from Colombia or Peru. I didn’t say that, of course. The local journalists were unfailingly kind to me, and I had no wish to hurt their feelings. I allowed, “I guess we fear each of them about the same.” Anyway, in a few years, the price of oil collapsed, and the posturing from Caracas went with it.

Kozloff will perhaps appreciate the personal anecdote because his book is replete with the same. He lets us in on his travels, Jack Kerouac-style, so we are with him when he is hiking in the Andes, observing rural poverty, or acquainting himself with indigenous tribes. Then the author is back in England, where he joins an “anti-capitalist May Day protest,” at which one of his confreres deface a statue of Winston Churchill. Then he is watching Chavez on TV, then protesting against globalism, then, in 2000, doing research for his dissertation in Caracas. He watches Al Gore and US President George W. Bush on the tube, cannot see much difference between them and casts his lot with Ralph Nader.

As for Chavez, the author portrays him, convincingly, as a soldier indignant about the moral flabbiness and corrupt ways of the career politicians he replaced. We learn that Chavez’s antipathy toward American culture stems, in some measure, from his partly Indian blood lines. So it is that Chavez has rechristened Columbus Day “Indigenous Resistance Day.” Resistance to what? He is no fan of liberal economics, free trade, cross-border investment, the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund nor, indeed, of capitalism itself.

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