Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hugo the Clown

I remember looking up a word last January when giving my opinion of Chavez to my Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Clown: n. Payaso. Hugo the Clown can entertain; I have enjoyed some of his more puckish moments. Deriding George Bush as the devil before the stiff suits of United Nations General Assembly was classic. Even better was his assistance a few years back to poor Americans with the gift of cheap heating oil. There he stole a page from Eva Peron's guide to political theater. With thousands of her own citizens destitute, Evita showed up Washington by sending clothing and other supplies to poor children in the United States.

With the exception of Dr. Patch Adams, who gave an electrifying speech one October night at Wesleyan and then proceeded to a student lounge where he continued his happiness sermon well past midnight, clowns frighten the hell out of me. And Hugo is one dangerous clown. Chavez has Venezuela well down the road to economic collapse. Inflation is rampant, and Chavez willfully fritters his country's oil wealth by meddling anywhere in the Hemisphere that will lend his red beret air time. All the more tragic for a continent that in most quarters has emerged from decades of economic stagnation.

Though Chavez has initiated many projects for the poorest Venezuelans, most are myopic stopgaps. Hiring Cuban doctors to work the understaffed Venezuelan clinics might alleviate current suffering, yet by not investing resources into medical schools, hospitals, and other public infrastructure, these gains are only for the short term. Venezuela might be better off if Chavez kept away from serious policy initiatives altogether. His proposed education reform, a Bolivarian Education System, would mandate a Marxist (genuine Marxists would be insulted with the comparison) curriculum light on practical applications and heavy on Hugo worship. The initiative threatens to shut down any private school that resists a classroom centered love fest for the great leader.

Worse, Chavez poses a real threat beyond the Venezuelan border. In his most recent foray into foreign policy he has parleyed his leftist credentials to insert himself as an intermediary in the Colombia's conflict with the FARC. The headline negotiations had focused on the release of Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her son Emmanuel, born to a rebel father, three of the more than seven hundred hostages believed to be in FARC custody. Both Hugo and the FARC looked foolish when it turned out that they were not in possession of Emmanuel. FARC stalled, claiming security concerns, then the three year old boy turned up in an orphanage in Bogota.

After Clara and Consuelo's orchestrated release last week, Chavez revealed his hand. Yesterday he asked President Uribe and the Colombian government to stop classifying the FARC as a terrorist group and recognise it as an oppositional force with political ends.

What exactly are the FARCs political ends? Long ideologically bankrupt, the FARC has resorted to kidnapping and the cocaine trade merely to keep its soldiers afield. Not even the rank and file are fooled. When given the chance the men, women and children that comprise the stock of FARC forces often seek to desert their dead end cause.

Chavez clearly would like to use the FARC as another spearhead in his 'Bolivarian' insurgency. While he may have little credibility in many Colombian eyes, he does have a Leftist following and may yet sow tensions in a country weary of conflict. Meanwhile, six more Colombians were kidnapped Sunday while on holiday in a remote region of the Pacific coast. The guerrillas chose six out of the 19 tourists, and released the remainder. They selected their captives based on whom they felt had the most money for ransom. Ideological, in a fashion.

Stay tuned.

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