Hugo Chavez, Imperialist

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Johnson, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Dictators and strongmen enjoy basking in their own glory. Spain's Generalisimo Francisco Franco waved from balconies to arranged crowds. North Korea's Kim Jong-il once preferred to be called "Dear Leader." Uganda's Idi Amin loved to show off in race cars. Cuba's Fidel Castro turned olive-green fatigues and seven-hour speeches into trademarks.

None managed to extend their charisma much beyond their borders. But Venezuela's authoritarian President Hugo Chavez seems to be making waves - not only in South America, but also in the United States, throwing money around from his country's oil industry, which he controls.

Here, his government reportedly pays lobbyists up to $100,000 a month to conduct publicity campaigns and convince Congress he's a good guy, despite all the epithets he has called U.S. officials since his election in 1998.

His government supports the Venezuela Information Office, a firm employing writers and publicists operating under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Allied pro-Chavez activist groups called "Bolivarian Circles" have now surfaced in Miami, Chicago and other cities.

This weekend, Venezuela's embassy helped organize a National Solidarity Conference on Venezuela at George Washington University along with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Committee for Indigenous Solidarity-D.C. Zapatistas, and Code Pink-D.C., all a stale wind from the 1980s, when radical groups agitated to build support for Nicaragua's Sandinistas and Salvador's guerrillas.

Last fall, Mr. Chavez negotiated with selected members of Congress to sell small amounts of discount heating oil to poor neighborhoods in Northern U.S. cities, helping these officials gain political clout. Appreciated as it may have been by consumers, it came as a result of overall higher oil prices Mr. Chavez obtained by prodding fellow OPEC members to limit production. (Weeks ago, in a schizophrenic reversal, Mr. Chavez threatened to stop all exports to the United States.)

Closer to home, Mr. Chavez is friendly with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and allowed FARC units to camp in Venezuelan territory. His regime granted FARC commander Rodrigo Granda Venezuelan citizenship before he was captured on a bounty and returned to Colombia. His regional satellite TV network, Telesur, bashes Colombia for its relations with the United States, in addition to beaming Marxist propaganda throughout South America. …