Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chavez is not getting his money's worth for the billions of dollars he is spending in public relations abroad: According to a new poll, his approval ratings in Latin America could hardly be worse.
The newly released poll of 20,200 people in 18 Latin American countries conducted by Latinobarometro, a Chilean-based firm, shows that when asked to evaluate foreign leaders on a scale from zero to 10 -- with zero being "very bad" and 10 being "very good" -- Latin Americans gave Chavez the worst rating among a list of 17 regional and world leaders.
What may be just as bad news for the Venezuelan president: The leader who topped the list was the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who got a score of 7.
Obama was followed by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, with a rating of 6.4; Spain's King Juan Carlos, with 5.9, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luiz Rodríguez Zapatero and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, with 5.8 each. Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Costa Rica President Oscar Arias received 5.7 each.
At the bottom of the list are Cuba's behind-the-scenes ruler Fidel Castro, with 4 points, and Chávez, with 3.9.
Interestingly, Chávez has a better image within Venezuela than outside, the Latinobarómetro study shows. The Venezuelan president enjoys a 50 percent positive image at home, whereas his approval rating is 41 percent in El Salvador, 33 percent in Bolivia, 27 percent in Argentina, 18 percent in Honduras, 16 percent in Peru, 15 percent in Chile, 13 percent in Mexico and 12 percent in Colombia.
The poll's overall results are amazing, considering the tons of money Chávez is pouring into highly publicized foreign-aid projects.
According to a study by Venezuela's Primero Justicia opposition party, based on official government announcements, Venezuela spent $53 billion in "presents" to other countries in the four years ending in December 2008. That's the equivalent of $14.5 billion a year.
The figure includes Venezuela's announced purchases of Argentina's foreign debt bonds as well as donations of oil to Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the United States, and schools, hospitals and other social projects across the region.
It does not include reported cases of off-the-books political assistance, such as the cash-filled suitcase accidentally discovered in Argentina in 2007. In 2009, because of falling oil prices and growing criticism at home of Chávez's largesse abroad, Venezuela's foreign aid is expected to drop to $3 billion, a researcher who is preparing a soon-to-be released update report by Primero Justicia told me.
How do you explain Chávez's low popularity in Latin America? I asked Marta Lagos, the head of Latinobarómetro.
"His image in the region has gone down substantially since 2006," she said. "Latin Americans don't like other people meddling in their internal affairs. And Chávez's paternalist leadership style of giving money away and bragging about it right and left does not sit well in the region."
That becomes even more evident when you compare Chávez's low approval ratings with those of Obama and Lula, the best-liked foreign leaders in the region, Lagos said. The U.S. and Brazilian presidents tend to be low-key about their countries' foreign aid, and most often go out of their way not to look as if they are meddling in other countries' affairs, she added.
My opinion: The Latinobarómetro polls confirms what many of us have long suspected, which is that Chávez's popularity is directly proportional to the price of oil.
While he was never among the most popular leaders, when oil prices reached record highs and he was signing checks around the clock in 2008, he was seen by more people than today as a leader who is seriously committed to helping the poor. Now that oil prices are lower and Venezuela's foreign aid is going down, Chávez's popularity ratings have plummeted.
All of this leads me to believe that if oil prices remain at current levels, as most economists predict, Chávez's influence in Latin America is likely to decrease. We're already seeing some leftist leaders, such as El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, keeping the Venezuelan ruler at a prudent distance.
Chávez's fabulous riches will probably give him enough resources to bankroll his megalomania at home and in a few small allied countries such as Bolivia and Nicaragua. But his Latin America-wide leadership project is fizzling.
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.