In September, a Latin American head of state made his way to the United Nations General Assembly to deliver a keynote address. Exuding machismo, he berated the existing global order and blamed the world’s woes on America. Much was made of the “universal desire for peace” and the “hegemony” of Western nations, particularly that of the United States. He roared, “Imperialist financial capital is a prostitute that cannot seduce us,” promising an independent policy that not only would not be influenced by Washington but would also run counter to American aims. If you think this is Hugo Chavez at the UN a few weeks ago on Sept. 20 characterizing President Bush as “the devil,” think again. It is Fidel Castro in September 1960. It’s almost uncanny how similar they sound and act. But that’s about where the similarities end.
A case is often made for Chavez presenting the sort of threat Castro posed four decades ago. After all, both are Latin American socialist leaders, the telos of whose lives seems singular: to oppose the United States. Both are masters of the art of “inflammatory rhetoric,” even in foreign lands far from their zones of comfort and familiarity. Castro stayed at a hotel in Harlem during the General Assembly’s opening session in 1960, driving the local crowds to frenzy with his passionate rhetoric. He constantly emphasized the downtrodden state of the Harlem residents in this so-called “land of opportunity.” Perhaps his aides forgot to tell him about the thousands of Cuban immigrants who arrived in the country to enjoy the benefits of the “land of opportunity.” Chavez, too, wasted no time in pandering to the local Hispanic population in the Bronx. If he were running for local office, he would surely have won. With Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte endorsing him, how could he lose?
Now, as the Cuban libre lies in a Havana hospital, Chavez is duly stepping up as Castro’s true heir. Then, before long, we should hear of CIA attempts to assassinate Chavez. But we won’t, because this time around, Washington knows how to deal with this maniac. In October 1962, thanks to a combination of factors that included the madman that was ruling Cuba, the world came the closest it has to a third World War. Communism then was the great ideological, strategic and military foe, and a communist a stone’s throw away from the eastern seaboard comforted no one. But Chavez is different. He is neither willing nor able to mount a military confrontation.
U.S. government officials have reacted to this calmly and prudently. The State Department dismissed Chavez’s remarks as the whims of a “buffoon.” John Bolton, vilified by Democrats as hot-headed, had this to offer: “These [remarks] don’t warrant a response.” On both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans responded to Chavez as a madman who isn’t to be taken seriously. The point isn’t to be ignorant of this buffoon. The point is to ignore him with cognizance.
The likes of Chavez are obviously thrilled at the debacle facing U.S. troops in Iraq. We would only be adding fuel to their fire by overreacting to Chavez. The worst thing for the United States and the best thing for Chavez would be if President Bush decided to place Venezuela in his “axis of evil” tomorrow. This would legitimate his cause and give him more reason to strut around the globe. The only thing more unfortunate than appeasing a dictator is emboldening him, and this is precisely what we would be doing if we decided to impose, say, an oil embargo on Venezuela.
Those who liken Chavez to Castro are correct to note that Chavez only has to support his allies in Iran and North Korea to pose a serious threat to America — and not threaten America itself — just as Castro had only to allow Khrushchev access to Cuba to keep missiles, and not attack America by himself. But it would make far more sense to pressure Tehran and Pyongyang in order to avoid this security threat. Chavez is an egomaniac whose existence would only be solidified by our returning his belligerence. Better to starve the buffoon than poke him in order to get him to behave.
Perhaps in the next few years, Venezuela’s sole source of income will cease to exist. Owing to a more harmonious international atmosphere, oil is already at $62 a barrel, after spending most summer near $80. Prices will probably rise if Washington overreacts. Rather, I await the day when oil prices crash sufficiently enough to force the Venezuelan economy to diversify. The world would certainly benefit, as would Venezuela in the longer run. The only one to suffer would be poor Chavez. But perhaps a position as a tax collector in the Bronx will turn up. Somehow, I suspect he’ll fit in neatly there.
Abheek Bhattacharya is a junior in Morse College.