Analysis; Chavez Becoming His Own Worst Enemy

Article excerpt

Byline: Frank Bajak Associated Press Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia - Has Hugo Chavez become his own worst enemy?

In the past few weeks alone, he has hurled insults at Colombia's president, Venezuela's Roman Catholic hierarchy and Spain's former prime minister. The kings of Spain and now Saudi Arabia have publicly rebuked him for impertinence.

Even some allies are annoyed at the Venezuelan president's acid tongue, constant meddling in other nation's affairs and seeming inability to divorce the personal from the political.

But with only days to go before a Dec. 2 referendum on dozens of constitutional changes that could cement his power in Venezuela, Chavez appears more concerned about his popularity at home than whom he might anger abroad.

Besides, taking on Spanish royalty and Colombia's right-wing president can only win him votes.

Chavez has never been one to hold back his bluster, and when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe canceled his high-profile effort to mediate a prisoner swap with leftist rebels, Chavez let loose.

"Uribe is lying in an ugly and shameless manner," he frothed.

And Colombia "deserves a better president, at least more dignified."

Chavez also took on Venezuela's top Catholic clerics, saying "the cardinal and the bishops are dolts, mental retards" for asking countrymen to vote their conscience in Sunday's referendum.

Riding high on US$100 a-barrel oil from the world's largest proven petroleum reserves outside the Middle East and infused with unflagging selfrighteousness, Chavez appeared not to care a whit that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia objected to his anti-US proposal that OPEC "assert itself as an active political agent."

Nor was Chavez fazed that King Juan Carlos of Spain asked him to "shut up" after he repeatedly called Spain's former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, "a fascist" at a summit of Ibero-American leaders in Chile earlier this month.

While Chavez's economic policies may be discouraging foreign investment, windfall oil profits have so far prevented serious harm to Venezuela from his pugilistic rhetoric and grandstanding antics.

"I think he feels supremely confident because he's got this energy market that couldn't be more favorable," said Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C.

And while Chavez declared Sunday that he was putting ties with Colombia "in a freezer," the dynamics of a globalized economy should work against a deeper political fissure. …