BOGOTÁ, Colombia, May 31 – When President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela arrived at the World Social Forum in Brazil in January, he was greeted with thunderous cries of “Here comes the boss!”
At ceremonies in March surrounding the inauguration of Uruguay’s president, Tabaré Vázquez, the latest left-of-center leader elected in Latin America, throngs roared their approval as Mr. Chávez gave one of his characteristically rambling talks, full of warnings about American imperialism.
And in Buenos Aires, crowds mobbed Mr. Chávez when he showed up to inaugurate Venezuela’s first state-owned gas station in the Argentine capital, part of a food-for-oil deal popular with Argentines.
It is the kind of public adoration that brings to mind another Latin American leader, Fidel Castro, who for more than 45 years has drawn accolades wherever he has gone, much to Washington’s chagrin. Now, it seems, the torch is being passed, and it is Mr. Chávez who is emerging as this generation’s Castro – a charismatic figure and self-styled revolutionary who bearhugs his counterparts on state visits, inspires populist left-wing movements and draws out fervent well-wishers from Havana to Buenos Aires.
Like Mr. Castro, Mr. Chávez is burnishing his image by mining latent anti-American sentiment and capitalizing on Washington’s mistakes, like the tacit support the White House gave to a short-lived coup against him in 2002.
He is now getting mileage out of the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-American exile and anti-Castro warrior accused of bombing a Cuban airliner.
Mr. Chávez has demanded that the United States, which is holding Mr. Posada Carriles, return him to Venezuela, his base of operations at the time of the bombing. Mr. Chávez has repeatedly accused the United States of having a double standard on terrorism, coming down hard on those it perceives as its enemies and pulling its punches with an accused terrorist at war with Washington’s longtime nemesis, Mr. Castro.
The strategy is classic Castro, but Mr. Chávez has one great advantage the Cuban leader never had – the richest oil reserves outside the Middle East, a gusher of cash that he is using to weave ever closer diplomatic and commercial ties with Latin American nations.
“He’s following his own path, his own destiny, and he’s doing it against U.S. opposition, so the Latin Americans support it,” said Wayne Smith, a former American diplomat in Cuba and now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, which tracks developments in Latin America. “That’s sort of the reaction, and it plays toward his advantage in the region.”
Mr. Chávez is also riding a wave of popular reaction in the region against the “Washington consensus” of democracy and open markets that the White House, for the moment, seems unable to dampen. While few leaders in Latin America are as provocatively anti-American as Mr. Chávez, three-quarters of South America is governed by left-of-center presidents, and next year Mexico may well elect a leftist populist of its own, Mexico City’s mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Meanwhile, Washington’s initiatives around the globe receive dour news coverage in Latin America, from the war in Iraq to prisoner abuses in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In a recent, coordinated set of surveys conducted across Latin America by a consortium of polling firms, President Bush was given a 26 percent approval rating – lower even than the much reviled International Monetary Fund. A yearly poll by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean company that surveys political attitudes around South America, showed that in 2004 more than 60 percent of Latin Americans still had a good opinion of the Untied States. But in some countries, like Argentina and Mexico, the approval rating was below 50 percent.
Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, attributes much of Mr. Chávez’s success to his anti-American oratory, which she said had long worked for Mr. Castro. “Hugo Chávez has adapted that discourse very well,” she said. “That’s a discourse that sells very well in Latin America.”
Already in office longer than any other current Latin American leader save Mr. Castro, Mr. Chávez, who was first elected in 1998, has undeniably become a spokesman for the millions of poor in Latin America who reject globalization in their search for another way.
Flush with oil money, he is remaking his country and spending billions on social programs that have given him a 70 percent popularity rating. Like Mr. Castro, he is also selling a vision of a just political system, one that stands up to El Norte, even as he stands accused of curtailing press freedom and judicial independence.
“The ideals of justice and progress are very much alive, and I think that Chávez somehow embodies that,” said Fernando Coronil, a Harvard professor who is writing a book about the 2002 coup. “It’s not so much socialism as a system, but it’s the hope that someone is offering to care for them and that someone is willing to counter a system that is not working for them.”
In the process, Mr. Chávez, like Mr. Castro before him, has become a vocal opponent of nearly every initiative Washington has mounted in the region. Increasingly Mr. Chávez seems to be gaining the upper hand.
Mr. Bush’s plan for a hemisphere-wide trade pact, initially planned for this year, is in shambles. Instead it is Mr. Chávez who is busy signing trade deals. The Venezuelan government is spearheading a new continent-wide television station, intended to carry news with a leftist bent, and building Petrosur, a regional energy company that is drawing up further oil and gas accords with Brazil and Argentina.
Mr. Chávez also rails against Washington’s aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia, a $3.3 billion program that has stalled and has little public support. At the Organization of American States, Venezuela’s candidate for secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, a Chilean Socialist, was elected on May 2. It was the first time the candidate backed by the United States had lost.
Washington’s response to Mr. Chávez, with top officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling him a destabilizing force, has attracted little support among Venezuela’s neighbors.
In such criticisms there are parallels with Mr. Castro, said Mr. Smith, the former diplomat. “I’ve always said that Cuba has the same effect on American administrations that the full moon has on werewolves,” he said. “That werewolf effect now applies to Chávez also.”