AP – “We do have reasons to be worried, Mr. Danger, about the U.S. arms buildup, about U.S. threats, about the presence of U.S. soldiers in Colombia,” Chavez said.
He accused the U.S. government of having “an interest in having war in Colombia” and providing large amounts of weapons. “That’s a reality, as it was in Central America, as it was in the Middle East. Who armed Saddam Hussein? Who gave Saddam Hussein weapons, ammunition, military technology? The U.S. government,” said Chavez, a fierce critic of the U.S. war in Iraq. “Who armed Osama bin Laden, and gave al-Qaida the great power it has? The United States,” he said, apparently referring to U.S. support for Afghan forces in their war against Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Chavez said he wouldn’t be surprised if the United States were supplying guns to Colombian guerrillas, their paramilitary enemies and the Colombian army at the same time “to justify their Plan Patriot and at the same time establish military bases in Colombia.” “It’s the perfect excuse for them to have a military presence in Colombia, and from there to threaten Venezuela and threaten any other country that begins changes they don’t like,” Chavez said. “The Lords of War, you can call them.” Chavez said he hopes the United States will “leave me in peace so that I can work.”
With every warning about Mr. Danger – the Venezuelan government’s title for Mr. Bush – American officials offer weary denials, a flurry of them coming after Pat Robertson, a religious broadcaster and Bush supporter, suggested this summer on his television show that the United States should assassinate the Venezuelan president. [On the CNN program “Late Edition” on Oct. 9, Mr. Robertson was back on the attack, citing unidentified sources who accused Mr. Chávez of sending “either $1 million or $1.2 million in cash” to Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks and asserting that Venezuela was trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity. The Venezuelan vice president, José Vicente Rangel, dismissed Mr. Robertson’s remarks, saying, “He’s crazy, at the very least.”]
With each threat and criticism from the north, real or imagined, Mr. Chávez lashes back, seemingly thriving on the atmosphere of confrontation. In this, veteran observers of the Latin American left see history repeating itself, and not necessarily as farce. Wayne Smith, a former American diplomat in Cuba, said he saw a parallel with the antagonistic relationship 10 American presidents have had with the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who survived the C.I.A.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion and several assassination attempts. “He plays David to our Goliath in a way that reverberates splendidly in Latin America,” said Mr. Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. “Now, Chávez is doing the same thing.” The whole war of words raises a question frequently asked in Caracas and Washington: Is Mr. Chávez paranoid or, as with Mr. Castro, is there some substance to his claim?
Or is Mr. Chávez simply out to raise his own standing as a regional leader by taking on an American president who is hugely unpopular in Latin America and widely regarded as a trigger-happy imperialist? After Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Chávez loudly accused Mr. Bush of bungling the rescue effort. On his trip to New York for a United Nations summit meeting in September, he made it a point to veer into two heavily Democratic and poor neighborhoods of the Bronx, where he offered to provide home heating oil at cut-rate prices and to underwrite an environmental study of the polluted Bronx River. “He said, ‘I don’t have a problem with the American people; I have some problems with some people in the American government,’ ” recounted Representative Jose E. Serrano, a Bronx Democrat who had invited Mr. Chávez to the borough. “He then held up both flags.” Mr. Serrano added, “You cannot deny that there are some people in this government who would like to see Chávez gone.”
Bush administration officials may not hide their distaste for Mr. Chávez – that, everyone agrees, is a big part of the problem – but American officials still cringe at the accusations, which they dismiss as ludicrous. “The U.S. has not planned, is not planning, will not plan and cannot plan to assassinate Hugo Chávez,” the American ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said in Caracas. “It would be a violation of both U.S. law and policy.” In Venezuela, though, where state television has broadcast video images of American officials criticizing Mr. Chávez as the evil empire music from “Star Wars” plays in the background, the threat is taken seriously. After all, as Venezuelan officials frequently point out, it was not all that long ago that the Bush administration gave tacit support to a coup that briefly toppled Mr. Chávez.
Mr. Danger is a long-standing figure in Venezuelan life, a character in a 1929 work, many times republished, by the novelist Rómulo Gallegos, who was also Venezuela’s first freely-elected president, brought down in a U.S.-backed 1948 military coup, ten months after he took office.
Gallegos introduced Mr. Danger in Doña Bárbara, a work that has been required reading in Venezuela’s secondary schools for forty years, ever since the return of electoral rule. In Gallegos’ novel, Danger is the exemplar of a type of American once common in rural Venezuela. A man of reddish complexion and deep blue eyes, he shows up in the ranch country of Venezuela’s tropical plains, where he kills alligators and tigers for their skins. Before long, he carries out a series of schemes to “conquer badly defended lands,” Gallegos wrote. In furtherance of his aims, Danger takes part in the murder and burial of an aged cattleman and his mount, but “for him, the scornful foreigner,” Gallegos noted, “there wasn’t much difference between Apolinar and the horse who accompanied him in his grave.” Mr. Danger afterwards usurps the property of a declassed landowner and claims custody of the man’s pubescent daughter, until a neighboring rancher-whom Danger had also defrauded–rescues both, Gallegos writes, “to liberate them from the humiliating tutelage of the foreigner.”
Chavez insists that no-one – no, not even George Bush – has any reason to fear him. His enemies are imperialism and capitalism. But how, I ask, can he ignore the tide of globalisation? I am a socialist, he says, and I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, who was the first socialist, just as Judas was the first capitalist. Perhaps because we’re recording the interview in Paris, while he’s on an official visit to France, President Chavez often quotes the 19th century French writer Victor Hugo and his hugely influential novel about poverty and oppression Les Miserables (now a musical of the same name). So if I were a wealthy Venezuelan capitalist, should I fear Hugo Chavez? Of course not, he says. No one has anything to fear. He fights against poverty and injustice. The rich can look after themselves.