Could an Obama win hurt Chávez?

Without Bush to rail against, Chávez will be left without a foil, say analysts.

Timothy Clary/AFP/Newscom
Tough words: President Chávez called President Bush 'the devil' at the UN General Assembly in New York in 2006.

At a recent summit in Argentina, Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chávez said that if he were a United States citizen, he'd vote for Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

The comment was passed off as a joke – but many observers say Mr. Chávez might not be laughing at the prospect of victory by democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois.

Mr. Chávez has made an art out of insulting President Bush and his "imperialist" foreign policy. His anti-Bush diatribes resonate in Venezuela and have helped insulate him from growing criticism that he neglects domestic affairs. And every time he launches into his famous oratory, he impresses a slew of left-leaning international admirers who wonder at his defiance of the world's sole superpower – which they say has taken an arrogant and aggressive tack.

A McCain victory would allow him to sustain that message: Mr. McCain, after all, hails from the same party and shares many of the same policies as Bush. But Senator Obama is a different story. It remains to be seen how Obama, who has never visited Latin America, would actually shape his policies here, but many in the region identify with his mixed-race heritage, share more similar politics, and would welcome what they consider a newcomer to the Washington beltway.

"It's hard seeing Chávez calling Obama 'Satan' and the likes," says Ray Walser, a Latin America expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He won't get as much traction."

Bush an easy target?

In Bush, Chávez has what analysts call an easy target.

Chávez doesn't have to look far to find allies in the region who also oppose the US war in Iraq and condemn what consider a US disregard for Latin America.

Each time controversial US policies make news – such as US military aid to Colombia or free trade deals – Chávez resumes his Bush-bashing.

"And every time the domestic situation worsens [in Venezuela], the more aggressive he gets," says Elsa Cardozo, a foreign affairs specialist at the Central University of Caracas.

Chávez has said that he doesn't officially support either McCain or Obama. But certainly his views are closer to those of Obama, especially on opposing unregulated free trade pacts.

Obama has voted against various agreements in the region, including one with Colombia. He has also said that parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement should be renegotiated.

McCain, on the other hand, just ended a three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he touted his support for agreements in both countries.

One of the centerpieces of Chávez's presidency has been an effort to create the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA – what he says would be an alternative trading block that would lessen the region's dependence on the US. Cuba, one of Chávez's major allies, is a member, along with Nicaragua and Bolivia.

On Cuba, Obama is more likely to ease some of the most strict US trade and travel restrictions.

Policies aside, the people of Venezuela seem much more drawn to Obama than McCain. "I would say that traditionally here in Venezuela, most Venezuelans support a Democratic Party candidate," says Steve Ellner, Venezuelan-based author of the recently published book "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics." "And that cuts across political and ideological differences."

That affinity is reflected worldwide in a recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which showed that respondents in most all countries surveyed say they have more confidence in Obama than McCain. The survey included 24,717 responses across 24 countries, including Brazil and Mexico in Latin America.

But in Venezuela, Obama, who would be the first African-American president of the US, inspires because he represents a world changing – the same transformation that so many Venezuelans believe in with Chávez, who they say is governing for the poor for the first time. "To have a black president in the US? That has to be a good thing," says Nancy Lam, a housewife from Caracas.

Of course, many Latin Americans support McCain, says Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, director of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Pennsylvania, especially those who favor free trade or US military support in the region.

But she says excitement at the prospect of an Obama victory, especially in the Afro-Latin community, is palpable.

In Colombia, where she focuses her research, "many Afro-Colombians are inspired by Obama ... there are editorials back and forth," she says. Some are waiting cautiously to see how an Obama presidency would play out and whether ultimately it would advance the goals of the Afro-Latin community. "But it's an historic moment."

Harder to call Obama the 'devil'

What may be historic for some might backfire for Chávez, however, as he has thrived on confrontation.

Probably his most audacious move was calling Bush the "devil" at a UN General Assembly meeting in September 2006. In another particularly virulent speech Chávez called Bush everything from a donkey to a drunkard – not to mention a coward and an assassin, ignorant and genocidal – in the span of three minutes.

"I think that if Obama were elected, that would certainly take a lot of wind out of [Chávez's] sails," says Nikolas Kozloff, author of the recently published book "Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left."

Others say that Chávez needs Obama to win because of his growing setbacks at home. "He does not have the luxury of permanent confrontation anymore," says Agustin Blanco Munoz, a historian at the Central University of Caracas. "But if there is a better relationship with the US, Chávez will be sure to say it is because Bush is the bad guy, not because of him."

It is unclear whether Obama would welcome such a relationship. He initially said he'd sit down with the Venezuelan president, which sparked criticisms of naiveté by his opponents. Later he seemed to backtrack. At a meeting with Cuban-Americans in Miami in May, he suggested that Chávez had risen to power because Bush has neglected the region. "No wonder than that demagogues like Hugo Chávez have stepped into this vacuum," he told the audience.

It is also unclear how cozy Chávez would ultimately want to get, if at all. Mr. Walser, for example, says that, although his rhetoric would lead many to believe otherwise, it is not Bush who is his enemy, but anything that gets in the way of his vision. He is likely to forge forward with it no matter who is president.

"He would shift his tone probably away from personal attacks to questioning US policies and engagement in the hemisphere," Walser says. But his real aim "is his idea of restructuring Latin America, to make it an independent force."

So his projects and bilateral priorities would likely be the same, as would be the themes of his speeches – they just wouldn't generate as many clicks on YouTube.

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