Commentary: Chavez's appeal is waning

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in July 2007.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in July 2007. ParsPix / Abaca Press / MCT

It's hard to imagine anyone who misses the presidency of George W. Bush more than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. While Washington all but ignored Latin America in the last decade, Chavez managed to bolster his standing at home and beyond by mocking Bush, the man he described as producing sulfurous emissions in the manner of the Devil himself, and by warning of the threat from "The Empire," his term for the United States.

Chavismo, the ideology and methods honed by the regime in Caracas, began growing roots in other parts of the region. Now we see signs that the appeal of Chávez and his regional followers has started to wilt. Throughout Latin America leaders who emulate Chávez and receive strong support from Caracas are beginning to run into strong resistance and immovably low approval ratings.

Before the military removed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from power, less than one-third of the population approved of his rule, and discontent threatened to bubble over – as it ultimately did – as he tried to take a page from Chávez's book to extend his term of office. In Argentina, the Chávez-aligned Kirchner administration suffered a devastating defeat in midterm elections on June 28.

In Nicaragua, former guerrilla leader, current president and Chávez acolyte Daniel Ortega also faces strong opposition, along with scandals over electoral fraud. In the Chavista mold, Ortega is also plotting the perpetuation of his rule, perhaps by changing Nicaragua from a presidential to parliamentary system so he can become prime minister.

Many people do love and admire the Venezuelan president, but his appeal has started to wear thin in Latin America. That is true, in defiance of conventional wisdom, even among the poor. Ask a taxi driver in Mexico City what he thinks of Chávez. There's a good chance he'll tell you, as several told me, that Chávez is a dangerous payaso. A clown. They have other ideas of what their country needs. Attacking poverty remains urgent, but Latin Americans have found a better way to do it.

We cannot give all the credit for the drop in Chávez's standing to former President Bush's exit from power. After all, the Venezuelan president's own policies speak for themselves, and the drop in oil prices along with the global recession only magnified the risks of his ''21st Century Socialism.'' But Chávez's desperate efforts to continue attacking the United States underscore his need for a powerful public enemy on the international stage.

It's no wonder that polls show Chávez is a curiously popular figure in the Middle East, the very region where America's standing suffered a pounding during the Bush years. A recent Zogby poll conducted in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab countries, showed the Venezuelan president, of all people, is the most popular leader in the Arab world.

In Arab countries, the details of Chávez's rule are not well known, while his histrionic attacks on the "Empire" have received great publicity. In contrast, Latin Americans have seen the continuing Chávez power grab, the restrictions on freedom of the press, the confiscation of private property. And they have started to see the rampant inflation and other perilous economic consequences of his policies.

Chávez's base of support lies with the poor. And yet, in Venezuela where most live in poverty, a recent survey by the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis shows two-thirds of the people want Chávez to leave power by 2012 at the latest, with many wanting him out before that. The president himself wants power indefinitely.

When Chávez came to office in 1999, the poor in Latin America, who remain far too numerous, did not see appealing alternatives. They saw capitalism that ignored their needs -- and then there was Hugo. Now, by contrast, Latin America has another example. Instead of the confrontational, divisive Chávez approach, those aspiring to improve the lot of the poor can look to Brazil and Chile. Both countries have leftist presidents, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Michele Bachelet, respectively. Both governments work to reduce poverty, but they do it in a way that stimulates economic growth and builds a strong economic foundation for the future. Both Lula and Bachelet enjoy stratospheric approval ratings.

As Chávez's appeal begins to wane, and with Bush in retirement, the time is ripe for Washington to stop ignoring Latin America. Chávez and his friends will not like it, but the rest of the region would welcome stronger ties with its northern neighbor.


Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs.