Chavez speaking with a voter in 2005
As I sat down to watch Fox News last night, I was delighted to catch Neil Cavuto’s coverage of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s address to the UN General Assembly. Fox never fails to disappoint the political viewer, right or left, by managing to deliberately outrage, incite or offend somebody somewhere. Indeed, I sometimes suspect that Fox’s burgeoning audience half consists of right-wingers looking for reasons to be outraged, and the other half of left-wingers looking for reasons to be offended.
So one can imagine the slow smile that crept across my face when a Fox correspondent told of how he caught up with Chavez after his speech and asked him the obvious question, “Why do you hate America?”
To Fox’s credit, they did air Chavez’ reply to this most important question. The Venezuelan president placidly explained that he did not hate America, in fact he loved America and its people, only hated its imperialism and its current administration. While there were raised, disapproving eyebrows all round at Fox News, no one outright called him a liar.
Like Fox News, Chavez likes to gain attention for his political cause by making outrageous statements. His address to the UN General Assembly was not just a tirade against the U.S.-directed geopolitical model (especially against President Bush himself) and a promotion of the Venezuelan Republic as a global defender of justice and truth, it was deliberately insulting. Not only did Chavez refer numerous times to Bush as, “the Devil,” he at one point called the “American Empire” every bad name he could summon, such as racists, assassins, and genocidal. Chavez went so far as to declare that the world was rising up against its real oppressor, the United States. Promoting Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” was, I thought, a charming touch.
These are the sort of statements that cast international politics in a whole new light. Chavez is not a rebel in the same sense as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose dissent is exclusively concerned with problems facing the Islamic world. Chavez is taking on the capitalist system in the name of the world community, many years after history was supposed to have ended and communism tossed onto the same scrap heap as totalitarianism. The Venezuelan president is claiming the privilege of defining global democracy, something that traditionally only the West is supposed to do.
The truth is had Chavez refrained from calling Bush names, no one would have paid any attention to his address, nor to any of the reforms and criticisms that he put forth. The Brazilian president Lula DaSilva’s UN address went comparatively unnoticed, despite the fact that Brazil is a far bigger player on the world stage and is really the greater power in the South American sphere. Brazil is part of the “second-world”, along with countries like India or Turkey, the “second world” being defined as a country of first-world relevance possessing third-world influence. For an eternity, it seems, these sorts of nations have been struggling for a share in the debate and determination of global policy, and have largely gone ignored.
Venezuela could also be considered a “second-world” nation, but thanks to Chavez newspapers will be printing articles, editorials and commentaries all over the world today discussing Venezuela’s elected leader. In a rare moment, the first world lost the spotlight to a politician speaking for the rest of the world.
Tragically, however, whatever media attention Chavez has gained through his admittedly hilarious statements regarding Bush’s metaphysical origin, none of his more grounded criticisms will be understood, much less discussed in the public arena. In his address, the Venezuelan president asked why the alleged terrorist Luis Posada Carriles was allowed to remain free in the US, (he is held responsible for blowing up a Cubana plane in the 1970’s killing 73 people, as well as several terror bombings in Havana), if the US is so dedicated to its War on Terror? He raised the uncomfortable memory of the procrastination of the Security Council during the Israeli devastation of Lebanon only a few weeks ago. Chavez went on to challenge the Bush doctrine’s notion of global democracy, calling it “the false democracy of elites.”
Additionally, he made some bold and necessary statements concerning the mission and function of the United Nations. He told the General Assembly that it remained a “purely deliberative organ” of little consequence. He reminded them of four proposals made the previous year for UN reform, all of which deserve repeating here: an expanded Security Council, an effective and transparent method to address regional conflicts, the suppression of the veto currently held by the five permanent members of the Security Council, and increasing the powers of the office of Secretary General.
Chavez was proposing nothing less than the removal of power in the UN from the hands of the big five and turning it over to the rest of the world. It’s a brave statement, not least because its generally understood that countries like the United States would sooner leave the UN than give up its veto. Perhaps that is what Chavez is hoping for.
Whatever effect he intended to have on his audience and on the public discourse, his more substantial arguments were not discussed in the news today. Not one mainstream news organization made any mention of the four proposed UN reforms (with the exception of mentioning in all seriousness Chavez’s joke about moving the UN out of America and relocating it in Venezuela). In the world presented by the major media, UN reform is the domain of American critics like UN Ambassador John Bolton, not third world proponents of its democratization. Nor did any of them mention the name of Carriles, or for that matter the names of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and US citizen Ronni Moffit (the day of his speech, September 20, Chavez observed, just happened to be the 30th anniversary of their assassination as part of a US-backed campaign against Chilean activists). On the other hand, Chavez’s indictments of American foreign policy were well documented, but only in the context of his devilish slurs against Bush, and so lost much of their political potency.
So to a certain extent President Chavez bears the blame for the reception of his remarks, and I’m sure he would happily accept responsibility for them. For anyone following the career of Hugo Chavez, it is well-known that he detests George W. Bush, and this type of rhetoric is nothing new. From his speech a few years ago calling Bush “an asshole” for believing Iraq had WMD’s, to his assertion that Bush is the world’s number one terrorist (Chavez was clutching an AK-47 at the time, don‘t ask me why), the Venezuelan president dislikes his American counterpart not just in matters of policy, but seemingly on a very personal level. Perhaps this is understandable when Chavez himself was nearly deposed from power in 2002 in a coup attempt, with credible evidence to suggest it was backed by the Bush administration.
None of this will be understood in the mainstream media. He will be seen only as either an amusing or dangerous lunatic, but as Neil Cavuto put it, “he may be a nut, but he’s not stupid.”