There are few starker signs of the decline of the principles over which decades of Cold War were fought such as US/ Western style free enterprise, free economy and democratic institutions than the demagogic populism that has engulfed and infected many countries in South America. Much of it has been fueled by oil and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has felt secure enough not only to foment movements in many countries but to also rub America’s nose.
In November last year, Chavez received in Caracas Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and at a state reception with full military honors and pomp, he used three words to characterize Ahmadinejad, each followed with a pause for applause: ‘Leader. Brother. Comrade.’
In January, in a long-overdue move, the Venezuelan Bolivar was devalued steeply and in typical Chavez fashion it has three levels, depending on the goods in his populist mind, 2.6, 4.3 and 6.0 to a dollar. While middle class Venezuelans were queuing for goods in front of Venezuela stores, Chavez was threatening military intervention in a vain attempt to control prices: ‘I want the national guard on the streets with the people to fight against speculation.’ Two days later, while the country was reeling from the new economic measures, in a bizarre statement but not untypical of Chavez, he spoke in favor of ‘socialist soap operas’ and against ‘too much capitalism’ on Venezuelan TV.
Venezuela’s trajectory, an interesting case study in the Barack Obama administration’s non-reaction and perception of its role in the region, is contrasted by an amazing transformation taking place across the border, in Colombia, a country with a historical rivalry with Venezuela and with a large number of spats of varying degree of seriousness during the last few years.
To be certain there are still problems in Colombia, still suffering from the FARC insurgency. . .
Michael J Economides is a professor at the Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston, and editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect OE’s position.