How will the mutual umbrage of Vicente Fox and Hugo Chávez play itself out? Chávez’s friends, the presidents of the nations of the Southern Cone, are urging reconciliation. The unity of the Americas, they have said in different ways, is a goal they share with the Venezuelan leader, and too important to be torn apart by name-calling. Fox’s friends, the most important of whom have Washington addresses, are happy to let the conflict brew for a while, all the better to “isolate” the intemperate Venezuelan. Chávez himself, perhaps the cleverest politician of the lot (and a high-stakes gambler, awash, for the time being, in oil money), knows that “isolation” can take numerous forms, some of which might leave Mexico on the outside looking in.
Shortly after the failure of last month’s Summit of the Americas to chart a clear course toward the passage of the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), Fox attacked the five South American presidents who blocked the proposal. “We have some presidents,” he said, “fortunately a minority, who blame other countries for all their problems,” a clear reference to the present and imminent members of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) who have called for a “symmetrical” free-trade agreement that would not, for now, include the United States. Pretty mild criticism, but personal nonetheless.
He then upped the ante by attacking Argentine President Néstor Kirchner for not keeping anti-FTAA street demonstrations under control at the Summit’s site, Mar del Plata, Argentina. Kirchner, he told the press, “was more interested in complying with Argentine public opinion than with effectively conducting a successful summit in terms of hemispheric integration.”
Kirchner struck back, accusing Fox of “head bowing” to the Bush administration. This was stronger stuff, and a bit more personal. Fox then switched gears and went after the anti-FTAA, Argentine soccer idol Diego Maradona (see last week’s column). This was stronger, more personal, and a bit like having an Argentine come to Mexico to blast the virility of Pancho Villa. Not a smart move.
That’s when Chávez, a big sports fan, struck back. “How sad,” he told the viewers of his weekly chat with Venezuela’s popular classes, Alo Presidente, “that the president of a people like the people of Mexico [a nod to Villa’s virility] lets himself become the cachorro of the empire.” Fox demanded an immediate apology, Chávez refused, ambassadors were pulled and here we are.
I leave the word cachorro in Spanish because it is subject to competing translations. The English-language press, firmly backed by all the Spanish-English dictionaries, goes with “puppy.” Nothing wrong with that except that it loses the fine sense of insider irony and political association that Chávez’s remark contains. I’ll go with “running dog.”
Those of you who remember the late Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung only for his brutal sweeping of all suffering humanity into his version of the ineluctable logic of history may not remember that Chairman Mao also had a way with words, one of which was zougou, “running dog.” My online English dictionary defines running dog thus: “noun: A servile follower; lackey; from Chinese zougou, from zou (running) + gou (dog), apparently as an allusion to a dog running to follow his or her master's commands.”
Back in the days of the Chairman’s outsized global influence, the term zougou was used to characterize his enemies, as well as the enemies of the Revolution. It was always translated as “running dog” in English but simply cachorro in Spanish. Over time, it was so widely and indiscriminately used that it became subject to a certain nuanced style of mockery and inverted meaning.
There is a delightfully sardonic oppositional (English-language) Chinese Website by that name whose commentaries suggest that Running Dogs who call themselves Running Dogs acknowledge both an unwillingness and an inability to carry out their prescribed roles in a set of authoritarian relationships. (A personal note: Running Dog was a proudly named Siberian Husky whose ironic sensibility graced the early days of our family life.)
Now I have no wish to associate the democratic governance of Hugo Chávez with the power-grows-out-of-the-barrel-of-a-gun governance of Chairman Mao, but the Venezuelan comandante also has a way with words, and he chooses them very carefully. So when he told the Venezuelan people that Fox was “un cachorro del imperio” he spoke deliberately to several sets of listeners, including an ideological left that would remember and recognize the words. It was to that left, and not to the President of Mexico, that Chávez was directing his remarks.
Fox has decided to take offence. Why? What sort of outcome is he seeking? Who is he trying to mobilize? This is a game more interesting than schoolyard name calling.