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. …