US Ambassador John Bolton dismissed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's
speech before the UN General Assembly last Wednesday as "comic strip"
material unworthy of respect. That was unfair to comic strips. Dilbert,
Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible may not be world leaders, but they
are models of thoughtful statesmanship next to Chavez, whose crackpot
screed set a new low for UN oratory.
"The devil came here yesterday," Chavez intoned, exaggeratedly crossing
himself at the podium where President Bush had appeared the day before.
"It still smells of sulfur today." He brandished a book by the far-left
extremist Noam Chomsky, suggested that Bush needs psychiatric help, called
him "the devil" a few more times (as well as "liar," "tyrant," and "world
dictator"), and described America as "imperialist," "fascist," and
"genocidal." So rabid was his language that Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
seemed almost moderate by comparison. And Chavez kept it up on Thursday,
deriding Bush as an "alcoholic" and a "sick man."
"Even the Democrats wouldn't say that," commented Britain's appalled
foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett. Well, some of them might. But House
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, normally an unsparing critic of Bush, rose
above party politics to answer Chavez's vitriol.
"Hugo Chavez fancies himself a modern day Simon Bolivar, but all he is an
everyday thug," she said. "He demeaned himself and he demeaned Venezuela."
Chavez may come across as a clownish loudmouth the "kook from Caracas,"
Mary O'Grady dubbed him in The Wall Street Journal but his potential
for troublemaking is no joke. He is a shrewd strategic thinker who hungers
for glory and sees a showdown with the United States as his ticket into
the history books. Accordingly, he denounces the American "empire" at
every opportunity and goes out of his way to cultivate relationships with
He made a point, for example, of visiting Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi
dictator was under international sanctions, and he has cozied up to Iran's
theocrats and Moammar Qaddafi of Libya. He is an avid protégé of Fidel
Castro, and has in turn served as mentor and patron to other anti-Yanqui
Latin American presidents, such as Argentina's Néstor Kirchner and
Bolivia's Evo Morales . According to Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights
Foundation, Chavez has armed, financed, and provided safe haven to members
of FARC, the Colombian narcoterrorists. He has even lavished praise on
Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the
But Chavez, who went to prison in 1992 after trying to overthrow
Venezuela's democratic government, has more in mind than striking
obnoxious poses. As Franklin Foer noted in The Atlantic last spring,
Chavez "speaks incessantly about the coming military confrontation with
the gringos." He has ordered his armed forces to study the Iraqi
insurgency and prepare to mount a similar resistance if Venezuela is
invaded. "He has begun organizing citizen militias, purchased 100,000 new
Kalashnikovs, and assigned books on asymmetric warfare to his top brass."
When Foer asked Nicolas Maduro, now Venezuela's foreign minister, what
Chavez foresees in US-Venezuelan relations, he answered: "Conflict, in all
likelihood war, is the future."
A crazy idea? Maybe, but Chavez is no fool. The one-time prison inmate
successfully ran for president in 1998, and in just eight years has
managed to transform Venezuela from a stable social democracy into an
increasingly authoritarian state in which he controls every lever of state
In 1999, for example, Chavez engineered a new constitution that eliminated
the Venezuelan Senate and made it easier to pass legislation in the
remaining one-chamber National Assembly. Congressional oversight of the
military was ended, along with the rule requiring presidents to step down
after one term.
He has taken control of the agency that certifies election results and of
the huge state-owned oil company, the source of most government revenue.
He secured a new law empowering the government to supervise the media, and
another authorizing the arrest of any citizen showing "disrespect" to
government officials. He got the Supreme Court enlarged from 20 to 32
justices, then packed the new slots with loyal supporters.
And under Chavez, repression is worsening. The State Department's latest
human rights report on Venezuela lists numerous abuses, including the
torture and killing of criminal suspects, and attacks on political
opponents, labor unions, religious organizations, and human rights groups.
As night descends on Venezuela, thuggish rulers everywhere are finding
Chavez a kindred spirit. There was indeed an odor of sulfur at the UN last
week, but it didn't come from President Bush.