Chávez’s Behavior at the Summit: Symptoms of Latin American Insecurity
The exchange below from the Ibero-American Summit in Chile has become infamous, prompting the author to reflect on leaders and peoples who swing between submission and violence in Latin America.
Chávez: “I’ll repeat what I said yesterday: Mr. Aznar is a fascist….”
Zapatero: “I’d like to tell President Hugo Chávez that at a table
where democratic governments represent their citizens in an
Ibero-American community whose basic principles are respect…”
Chávez: “Aznar is a fascist and a racist…”
Zapatero: “…one can be at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, and I’m not the one close to Aznar’s ideas, but the former President was elected by the Spanish people and deserves respect…”
Chávez: “A serpent is more human than a fascist or a racist,
a tiger is more human than a fascist or a racist …”
Juan Carlos: “Why don’t you just shut up?”
Andrés Pérez Baltodano
Everything that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez said in his altercation with President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and King Juan Carlos of Spain at the 17th Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, in early November has been discussed to death, but nothing has been said about his deafening silence after the King told him to shut up. The video of the meeting shows Chávez harassing and interrupting Rodríguez Zapatero. Then Juan Carlos appears, moving his hand aggressively against Chávez. Seconds later he utters his now famous phrase. Chávez has said that he didn’t hear it, but that is clearly contradicted by the video footage.
Scolded into silenceAfter Juan Carlos’ interjection, Chávez did indeed shut up. And like a scolded child he listened in uncomfortable silence to the end of the lecture on urbanity given to him by a furious Rodríguez Zapatero and the supportive applause of many of his colleagues. Why didn’t Chávez dare tell the King on the spot a few of the things he expressed after the storm had passed, such as “He might be a king, but he can’t make me shut up,” or “Not even a thousand kings can shut me up”?
But it didn’t take a thousand or even two kings to deflate Chávez. One scrappy command from a worked-up Juan Carlos did the job. Toe to toe, with a winner and a loser, just the way Chávez likes it, he was beaten at his own game of verbal aggression and improvisation.
Between aggression and submissionThe crushed Chávez after his scolding by Juan Carlos contrasted with his assurance and security minutes earlier when he was ranting against the age-old evils and imperialisms of all latitudes. It contrasted with his energetic response to the King’s rudeness after the meeting. And above all it contrasted with his exuberant comments during speeches in public squares and his interminable presidential phone-in show, “Hello President,” with which he tortures his adversaries in Venezuela.
The contrast between his aggressiveness and his silence after being bested by Juan Carlos is symptomatic of one of the great problems afflicting many Latin American leaders when they come up against power, particularly the power of Europe and the United States. They oscillate between exaggerated aggressiveness and pathetic submission, unable to find any middle ground from which to defend our countries’ position intelligently and, above all, effectively.
In this sense, the following quote by our own Santiago Argüello in 1929 is applicable to the Chávezes of our long-suffering continent: “We shoot off our mouths all by ourselves. We’re either catapults or kisses; but when we love or hate, censure or exalt, it’s always with a Saint Barbara-like explosion. We’re never level-headed, but rather have polar extremes devoid of an equatorial zone. The Englishman keeps the letter that angers him and answers it when his mind is serene. We, on the contrary, answer it right away; and if the anger goes away we don’t answer it at all.”
An example of simplicity and dignityCould it be that our dignitaries aren’t convinced they can have formally equal relations with the dignitaries of other countries—including those more powerful than ours—from the positions they occupy? That would certainly appear to be the case. It would also appear that they’re not convinced of their capacity to debate and present their reasons with composure; in other words, without resorting to common phrases and shouting. They seem to doubt their own legitimacy.
That’s why I have written before and now repeat—at the risk of Nicaragua’s Amaru Barahona and Orlando Núñez labeling me an admirer of that infinitely elastic “oligarchy” invented by some from the gangland party in government as an enemy of the gang-state they’re helping construct—that President Violeta Chamorro’s example of simplicity and dignity in her relations with the world’s great and powerful should be studied carefully by Nicaraguans and other Latin Americans. She demonstrated the possibilities offered by an uncolonialized mind. And it’s worth clarifying that her case can’t be explained by her class position alone, because the class she belongs to has also produced countless bipolar leaders who also swing between submission and aggressiveness when faced with power.
Social cohesion: A hollow conceptOur rulers’ insecurity—in Chávez’s case successfully disguised beneath his hyperbolic discourse—is unfortunate for the countries they represent. It lost Venezuela and the rest of Latin America the chance during the recent Santiago Iber-American Summit to discuss topics as important as social cohesion, the meeting’s central issue. We lost because some of Chávez’s complaints against that concept are valid. Social cohesion is an idea propagated by European governments to facilitate the integration of Latin American societies into the trade frameworks they are promoting. It wasn’t conceived as a response to what we see as the problem: the transnational integration of societies disintegrated by social inequality, territorial disparities, racism and gender inequalities.
Chávez could not address such problems intelligently or seriously. Anyone who reads the text of his presentation in the Santiago Summit will realize that the Venezuelan leader addressed them with a superficiality bordering on irresponsibility.
Daniel Ortega’s rantingLike Chávez, Daniel Ortega also swings between aggressiveness and submission in his relations with power and the powerful. During the last election campaign, for example, he flirted embarrassingly with Washington. Everyone remembers the photo of him entering the Plaza de la Fe on horseback caped with the flag of Nicaragua and trailed by the Stars and Stripes. Ignored by Washington, Ortega reacted like a spurned fiancé, using a tired, unimaginative discourse to denounce the USA in all international forums in which he participated. And what can one say about his incessant condemnation of global capitalism on the one hand and his love-struck 15-year-old’s smile for Carlos Slim on the other? Slim is the incarnation of one of the most savage forms of capitalism: it builds its capital by milking the state.
No winners in SantiagoNo winners emerged from in the disorderly confrontations Chávez provoked during the closing session of the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago. President Bachelet lost as the hostess of a meeting that will be remembered for the saloon-bar atmosphere that dominated the closing session. King Juan Carlos lost because he responded like a quarrelsome kid egged on by Chávez’s provocations. The Venezuelan President lost because he demonstrated yet again that the Bolivar disguise he likes to wear is ridiculously big for him. And we Nicaraguans lost because we’re represented by a leader who makes us seem like a ridiculous and anachronistic country.
The whole of Latin America lost because the simple presence of Chávez and Ortega as democratically elected Presidents shows that the region’s peoples are still weighed down by politicians who are expert in what priest and guerrilla fighter Camilo Torres called “the fatuous fires of tropicalist eloquence.” Those fires, said Torres, “remind us, within a different cultural framework, of those decadent Renaissance Courts where the leaders indulged in floral games, charades and pantomimes while the people grappled with miserable poverty. When they woke up from that irresponsibility, they found themselves on the scaffold.”
Fortunately scaffolds are no longer used, but Torres’ warning is still valid. Chávez and Ortega are sowing the seeds of their own downfall through their current behavior. They are creating so many enemies and alienating so many people that they need to eternalize themselves in power to survive. But it’s impossible to stay in power indefinitely because as the Spanish saying puts it, “No evil lasts a hundred years and nobody can put up with it.” This is particularly true in Latin America where, just like their governors, the people swing between submission and violence in the face of power.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and an envío collaborator.