Loory: Hugo Chavez rose to power by beating an ex-Miss Universe for Venezuela’s presidency in 1998. He embarked on a campaign that was strongly anti-U.S. and anti-free private enterprise. He wanted to take control of the oil industry, in which the state already had a huge but not controlling interest. Chavez said he wanted to use the profits to overcome poverty in Venezuela. He has been only partially successful. There has been little trickledown, but Chavez has used huge amounts of his country’s oil profits to spread anti-U.S. socialism in Latin America. In Argentina, he has guaranteed billions of dollars in loans to help that country pay off debts from a credit crisis that almost brought it into bankruptcy. He has helped Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, nationalize the natural gas industry and write a new constitution. He has given medical assistance to Nicaragua’s poor and has traded energy for doctors with Cuba. He has formed a new development bank for Latin America, in competition with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Chavez has founded TeleSUR, a television news network, to counter U.S. news organizations like CNN and Voice of America. In short, he seems to be trying to set himself up as a successor to Fidel Castro, as the anti-U.S. leader in the Western Hemisphere. What exactly is Chavez trying to accomplish in Latin America, and is he succeeding?
David Natera, publisher, Correo del Caroni, Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela: Chavez’s plan is to expand his philosophy in Latin America and his rule in Venezuela. In Venezuela, Chavez commands everything — the congress, the National Assembly and the office for the election. He is the power, the regime. Freedom of the press is bad because Chavez has a plan to control all the opinions. Chavez uses money to control the newspapers, especially the independent ones. Newspapers can’t buy anything if the government doesn’t authorize them to do so. Last year, my newspaper was out of circulation for three days because the government didn’t give us an opportunity to pay for newsprint. Some newspapers, radio and TV stations do stay independent, but Chavez is against that.
Loory: What has Chavez done in Nicaragua, and has it gained him prestige?
Christiana Chamorro, president, Chamorro Foundation, Managua, Nicaragua: Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, holds Chavez as a mentor. He’s literally following in Chavez’s steps and is trying to control the media in some of the same ways as Chavez. Economically, Chavez is a bad influence on Nicaragua because Ortega has started depending on Chavez for oil. Ortega thinks Chavez will solve all of the Nicaraguan problems, but the Venezuelan system is disorganized and the help Chavez has offered hasn’t come. Politically, Ortega is following Chavez in the scheme of his parliamentary democracy and in the scheme to continue in the presidency and to control all aspects of society. This can’t last because Ortega’s following of Chavez has put Nicaragua far from the international community, and it cannot be that way forever.
Loory: How is Chavez viewed in Argentina, and what has he been doing there?
Raul Kraiselburd, editor, El Dia, La Plata, Argentina: Chavez has a noisy but small group of supporters in Argentina. He’s made some speeches, but he doesn’t have influence. He’s helped Argentina with billions of dollars in loans, but it isn’t a lot of money for the country. Chavez has been an icon for the extreme left wing, and some suppose he has tried to influence those groups by putting money into them.
Loory: The U.S. has had an on/off relationship with Latin America through organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Now Chavez is trying to supplant the U.S. as Latin America’s benefactor. How is he doing and what is the U.S. doing to counteract that?
Edward Seaton, editor-in-chief, The Manhattan Mercury, Manhattan, Kan.: For Chavez the driving effort against free markets, which are the bedrock of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is to push state ownership. He has just announced the nationalization of the steel and the cement industries, so he is pushing in that direction. That’s given new hope to socialists in Latin America, and they’ve had some success in elections, as we’ve seen in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Loory: What impact are Chavez’s multilateral activities like TeleSUR having in Latin America, and what is the U.S. government doing to counteract his influence?
Seaton: TeleSUR isn’t having much success outside of Venezuela, although it is on a lot in Venezuela. Chavez is spending about 10 percent of his budget on foreign endeavors. That’s a lot of money and money talks, so it will have some impact. The U.S. isn’t doing much to stop Chavez. Traditionally, the U.S. thought if it ignored Chavez he would slow down or go away. Now, with the focus on the Middle East, there isn’t a lot of effort to deal with Chavez.
Kraiselburd: Many things we see today with Chavez happened in Argentina in the 1940s. After the World War II, Argentina was a rich country and tried to compete with the U.S. for influence in Latin America. That government tried to control the newspapers by controlling the import of newsprint. Chavez looks like the 1940s dictators in Latin America.
Loory: If Chavez remains in power, will democracy in Venezuela disappear?
Kraiselburd: There isn’t democracy in Venezuela because there isn’t an independent judicial system. There is a government elected by the people, but not a democracy. Chavez is trying to destroy any opposition or way of thinking that is different from the government’s way of thinking.
Loory: There’s still a considerable amount of freedom of the press in Venezuela. Newspapers speak out against Chavez, and he appears to adhere to the democratic electoral process. Is his ultimate intention to do away with these democratic processes?
Natera: I’m sure of it. He is buying Russia’s and other countries’ armaments, rifles and submarines. Venezuela is not at war, so we’re sure he is going to use that against the people. He is spending money everywhere. Last year he sent more free oil to Cuba. The Venezuelan newspapers announced the National Assembly approved more money to make a film of the independent leader of Haiti. Haiti is now having riots because people are angry. An American actor has received money for a film about somebody in Haiti, while in Haiti, people are calling for food.
Loory: Does Chavez picture himself as the successor to Fidel Castro in Latin America?
Chamorro: Chavez is trying to be the successor to Castro and to be a modern dictator. He is using the democratic resources he has to impose a dictatorship based on extortion. He’s using petroleum to establish a new Latin American correlation force, and he’s using petroleum as his power to confront Colombia in order to polarize Latin America with the U.S. Chavez is trying to do that, and Ortega is his follower.
Loory: Chavez certainly is a charismatic man of huge ego, who might have been, like Castro, a major league baseball player. But he decided politics was more his style, and he appears bent on challenging the U.S. in a political World Series.