Byline: Kelly Hearn, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
BUENOS AIRES - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is spending billions of dollars to build a socialist bulwark in the Western Hemisphere, turning windfall oil profits into energy deals and political clout for his "Bolivarian revolution."
But an intense 2006 election season has become a test of Latin America's willingness to march to his populist beat.
Ideological allies of Mr. Chavez's who had been expected to win the presidencies in Mexico and Peru have plummeted in polls, as voters take offense at the Venezuelan leader's public campaigning as an insult to their respective nations' independence and sovereignty.
Moreover, the backlash is threatening to spread to other nations, including Venezuela, and Mr. Chavez's checkbook diplomacy is adding to suspicions of a man who fashions himself as a 21st-century version of South America's liberator, Simon Bolivar.
"The real size of the Venezuelan government is three feet high - the size of a barrel of oil," said Diego E. Arria, former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations.
Mr. Chavez has spent between $18 billion and $25 billion on foreign projects since taking power in 1999 - on everything from paying off Argentina's debt to the International Monetary Fund to underwriting a popular samba festival in Brazil.
In recent weeks, Mr. Chavez's spending and his use of the bully pulpit to back leftist political candidates in other Latin American nations has caused diplomatic spats with Nicaragua, Peru and Mexico, all of whom accuse the Venezuelan of meddling in their affairs.
On May 4, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Norman Caldera asked Mr. Chavez to end his interfering in Nicaragua's election after Caracas agreed to provide 10 million barrels of oil annually to 51 Nicaraguan communities whose leftist mayors are sympathetic to presidential candidate Daniel Ortega.
Mr. Ortega, a former president and a Chavez favorite, fought a war against U.S.-backed
Contra rebels in the 1980s before being voted out of office.
Even Mr. Ortega is said to fear that Mr. Chavez's public support for his candidacy threatens to derail his comeback.
Similarly in Peru, Mr. Chavez caught heat for publicly backing leftist presidential hopeful Ollanta Humala. Mr. Humala, a former colonel who fits the Latin American mold of populist strongman, is considered key to Mr. Chavez's plan to link the resource-rich Andean nations as a buffer against Colombia, Washington's key ally in the region.
Peru withdrew its ambassador to Caracas earlier this month to protest Mr. Chavez's campaigning in its election. But what may be more significant, Mr. Humala, once a clear front-runner, is scrambling to distance himself from Mr. Chavez as his lead evaporates in an upcoming election against former President Alan Garcia.
In Mexico, campaign ads branding left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as a puppet of Mr. Chavez's have helped erase what was once considered an insurmountable lead for Mr. Lopez Obrador in upcoming presidential elections.
"For Chavez, Latin American integration is not economic, but political," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said at a recent luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. "His aim is to make South America different from North America, and to offer protection against the great hegemon of the north." \PA
The moderate left
In contrast, other left-leaning leaders in the region, such as Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet are pushing regional alliances as a first step toward greater consolidation and trade with the United States.
Between those two strategies, "there is a competition for the future of South America," said Mr. Shannon, who heads the State Department's Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs. …