Watching Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez call on his armed forces to "prepare for war" with Colombia, I couldn't help wondering whether he will end up like the late star of the TV series The Crocodile Hunter — a victim of his own addiction to headlines.
Remember The Crocodile Hunter? It was the TV series in which Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin — amazed us every week by coming dangerously close to poisonous snakes, lions, crocodiles and other wild animals. As Irwin's ratings rose, so did his need to perform ever more daring acts in order to keep his ratings from falling.
Every time I watched Irwin pulling off an intrepid feat — like putting his hands inside a lion's mouth, or tying up a crocodile's mouth with his bare hands — I shook my head with an eerie feeling that his need to surprise us with increasingly bold actions would end in tragedy. He died in 2006, when he got too close to a stingray in Australia's Great Barrier Reef and was pierced in the chest by the animal.
I don't mean to take the tragedy lightly, but his television career invites comparisons with that of many attention-hungry politicians. Like the Crocodile Hunter, Chávez owes much of his staying power to his audacious moves to grab headlines.
When the going gets tough at home, Chávez diverts public attention by blaming the "oligarchy" or "the empire," playing the victim, and — above all — doing whatever it takes to remain at center stage.
In recent years, Chávez has repeatedly raised the specter of alleged U.S. plans to invade Venezuela and has spent more than $5 billion on Russian arms.
More recently, he ordered troop deployments to the Colombian border, and has claimed that a Colombia-U.S. agreement that allows American anti-narcotics troops to have a presence on Colombian Air Force bases is evidence of Washington's alleged invasion plans. Even diplomats whose governments are close to Venezuela concede that the idea of a U.S. invasion is off the wall.
But now things are going from bad to worse for Chávez, and he might have to raise the stakes. Chávez's popularity ratings have dropped to 46 percent, from 52 percent a month ago, according to a Datanalisis poll. And Venezuela's economy is falling apart despite benefiting from the biggest oil boom in recent memory.
Consider some of Chávez's latest problems. They are threatening his winner's image at a time when the opposition is beginning to organize for the 2010 legislative elections that could end his absolute control of Congress.
• In recent weeks, oil-rich Venezuela has been suffering its first electricity cuts since the government nationalized the Caracas Electricity company a year ago. The government says the cuts are due to maintenance work and installation of new equipment, but experts say the state-run electricity company's infrastructure is crumbling.
• For the first time, there are water shortages in the capital and key states. Chávez has blamed the shortages on "swimming pools of the rich," which he said are "siphoning off water from the poor." To save water, Chávez asked Venezuelans to take "Communist showers" of no more than three minutes.
• According to an Oct. 28 El Nuevo Herald report, Chávez's 2010 government budget includes a more than 600% increase in the president's spending budget, which will rise to $2.2 billion. The new budget includes $264,000 for clothing, $18,500 for shoes, $145,000 for soap, shampoo and other bathroom products. At a time when Venezuela's economy will fall by about 2 percent this year and the country has Latin America's highest inflation rate, few Venezuelans find the news of Chávez's personal expenses amusing.
Is Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist leader bluffing with his warnings of a possible war with Colombia? Most U.S., European and Latin American diplomats think so. Venezuela's 78,000-strong armed forces are no match for Colombia's better-trained and more motivated 230,000-troop military, they say.
My opinion: True, it doesn't make sense for Chávez to go to war with Colombia. But if Venezuela's economy continues to deteriorate, and Chávez's popularity rates continue to fall, I wouldn't be surprised if he creates a serious border incident with Colombia in order to wrap himself in the Venezuelan flag and emerge as the savior of the fatherland.
Like Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, he is addicted to ratings, and may do whatever it takes in order to keep his numbers from falling — even if it could lead to his own demise.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.