The Looming Presence of Hugo Chávez

LIMA, Peru—It used to be that when Latin Americans learned I was half-Venezuelan, they would joke about the country’s beauty queens. (Venezuela runs a cottage industry churning out leggy contenders; the country has nabbed four Miss Universe and five Miss World crowns.) Nowadays, however, mention of Caracas tends to bring up a different kind of association—one that has more to do with polarized politics than silicone breasts.

“Ah, Hugo Chávez,” my cab driver said as he peered at me from the rearview mirror on the way from Lima International Airport early this morning. “You’re going to hear a lot about him in Peru. He’s been meddling here, you know.”

He was referring to the Venezuelan president’s enthusiastic involvement in the Peruvian presidential election, which I’ve come to Lima to cover. This is election season in Latin America: Five countries   have chosen new leaders since last December, and voters in five more nations—including the regional behemoths Mexico and Brazil—will go to the polls by the end of 2006. Chávez, who is a vehement critic of President Bush and hard to the left, has chosen favorites in several of these electoral standoffs. Last December, a staunch ally, Evo Morales, won the Bolivian presidency in a landslide. That increasingly looks like a victory for Chávez’s mission to prod more Latin American countries to adopt a nationalistic, anti-capitalist mandate: Morales recently signed a trade pact with Venezuela and Cuba and nationalized his country’s natural-gas industry.

As Peruvians go to the polls on June 4, there is more at stake than who will lead the country for the next five years. This is one electoral showdown—and the first since Bolivia—in which Chávez has been so involved he might as well be on the ballot. Whether Peruvians endorse his anointed contender could be a sign of how appealing his populist and anti-U.S. message is to Latin Americans generally.

The candidate Chávez is championing in Peru—former army Col. Ollanta Humala—looks an awful lot like the Venezuelan president. In fact, Humala seems to have adopted Chávez’s path to power as a career blueprint. Like the Venezuelan, Humala first attempted to seize power through a military coup. His 2000 uprising against the government of former President Alberto Fujimori failed (as did Chávez’s 1992 effort). But after serving jail time, both men hit the hustings and developed significant followings, particularly among their countries’ poorest citizens. (Chávez won his 1998 election decisively, and Humala finished first in the first round of the Peruvian election in April.) Given the men’s shared background, perhaps it’s not so surprising that Chávez’s boosterism of his Peruvian protégé has a fervent quality; at a press event in Bolivia, he declared he was “praying to God” that Humala would pull off an electoral victory. There are also rumors that Chávez’s support has gone beyond appealing to a higher being and into the form of hard cash—an allegation both men deny.

If Humala is a quasi-unknown quantity—he has never before held elected office—his opponent has a long political rap sheet. It’s not the kind that generally wins elections: When Alan García first served as Peru’s president from 1985 to 1990, inflation hit 7,200 percent per year, the Shining Path guerrillas were ascendant, and corruption was rampant. His five-year stint in office is considered the worst of any elected Latin American president in history. Still, polls put García ahead in his matchup with Humala. He swears he’s learned from past mistakes. Perhaps more important, he’s running against Hugo Chávez as much as Humala, denouncing his rival as a “pupil” of Chávez’s. After Chávez derided García as a “thief” and warned he would withdraw the Venezuelan ambassador to Peru if García won the election, current Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo beat Chávez to the punch: He recalled his country’s representative in Lima, chiding the Venezuelan for “flagrant interference” in Peruvian affairs. (Chávez quickly recalled his representative to Lima in turn.) Toledo, who recently inked a trade pact with the United States, has never been in Chávez’s good graces; earlier this year the Venezuelan dismissed the outgoing Peruvian president as “so like Bush.”

That could well be the worst epithet in Chávez’s book. While a politician who looks to Fidel Castro as a role model would never have been a good fit with George W. Bush, U.S.-Venezuelan relations plummeted after the administration all but broke open the champagne when Chávez was briefly deposed by a coup in 2002. The Venezuelan isn’t ever at a loss for words when it comes to describing his opprobrium of the U.S. president (whom he often refers to as “Mr. Danger” or “moron”) and capitalism (which he decries as “the road to hell”). Given that Bush’s approval rating in Latin America ranks in the teens, according to a recent Zogby poll, Chávez’s emergence as a pre-eminent Bush foe has been an enormous boost to his standing in the region.

Of course, Chávez hasn’t emerged as the most influential player in Latin America solely because of whom he’s fingered as enemy No. 1. He has also engendered good will by tapping Venezuela’s oil wealth to become the region’s Daddy Warbucks. People living in communities from the Bronx to Havana are enjoying cut-rate oil thanks to Tío Hugo. Chávez also bought more than $1 billion of Argentine debt, allowing that country to retire its debt to the International Monetary Fund; extended expertise and money to Morales as the Bolivian brings his country’s gas industry under state control, and just signed a deal to refine Ecuador’s crude oil, an offer that will save the Andean country up to $300 million a year.

While the Venezuelan claims his Santa Claus act stems from altruism, the generosity serves a broader strategy. Ultimately, Chávez hopes to emulate his historical idol, Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolivar, who freed swaths of Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 1800s. Bolivar was unsuccessful in realizing his vision of permanently uniting the Andean countries of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Chávez’s effort to see like-minded leaders elected across the region—and link the governments via a trade pact that would specifically exclude the United States—is an updated take on Bolivar’s cherished dream.

In order to help his allies win high office, Chávez has resorted to more than handouts. In addition to embracing Humala in Peru, he’s also championed the candidacy of leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Endorsements from El Comandante can backfire, however. López Obrador’s principal opponent, Felipe Calderón, recently ran commercials juxtaposing Chávez with the former mayor of Mexico City. The association didn’t endear López Obrador to voters: He recently lost the commanding lead he’d enjoyed for months.

In Peru, it appears that Chávez’s public paeans to Humala have boomeranged in García’s favor. If García pulls off a win, it would be a stunning resurrection: He left office in 1990 with a 5 percent approval rating. Still, if voters do reinstall him in the presidential mansion, it shouldn’t be interpreted as forgiveness for past wrongs. This is a case in which most voters aren’t voting for a candidate but rather against the alternative. García knows this. At a campaign event yesterday, he urged voters to think of the current matchup not as García v. Humala, but “Chávez or Peru.” Karl Rove—master of “the-other-guy-is-worse” campaigns—couldn’t have come up with a better slogan himself.