Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's recent proclamations that President Bush is the devil and that he could still smell the sulfur from Mr. Bush's visit to the UN the day before have largely been covered by the media as laughable and absurd.
But if you found yourself guffawing or rolling your eyes - perhaps the way that many rolled their eyes at Bush's "axis of evil" speech - you'd be missing the underlying strategy of Latin America's most powerful and problematic leader. What's more, you're probably not who Mr. Chavez is talking to, anyway.
Beyond the glittering generalities and name calling is an expertly crafted appeal to Latin America's masses. For many Latin Americans, to see Hugo Chavez step up to the podium of the United Nations and berate the leader of the United States in front of, quite literally, the whole world was more gratifying than winning the World Cup during Mardi Gras.
Chavez's use of religious symbolism is, of course, no accident. In Venezuela, Chavez refers to the four private media stations that oppose him as "the four horsemen of the apocalypse." He says the Catholic leaders who speak out against him are possessed and need to be exorcised, and it is no coincidence that the president's weekly talk show is held on Sunday morning.
This religious rhetoric has made Chavez extremely attractive to Latin America's devout Roman Catholic population, and many of them see Chavez - as he admittedly sees himself - as a Messianic figure come to raise Latin America out of its long history of subordination to the developed world. In fact, some evangelical pastors openly preach that Chavez has been sent by God.
While you can blast Chavez for overseeing a regime that has destroyed labor unions, stifles free speech, and is rotten with corruption, it cannot be denied that the Venezuelan president is a brilliant orator and populist. Rhetoric is Chavez's forte: He has the ability to tap into people's emotions and belief systems. He makes people feel that they can become part of something bigger - that they are playing a role in history by joining his cause.
The other crucial ingredient in Chavez's successful appeal to Latin Americans is his militant nationalism, embodied by his employment of Simon Bolivar as a political symbol. Chavez had Venezuela renamed "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" and reportedly likes to set a place for Bolivar at the dinner table. …