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The Question of Hugo Chavez: a rebuttal to Mark Falcoff

By Scott Sullivan

17.08.05 | Mark Falcoff’s article raises two important questions. First, is Hugo Chavez a threat, as US officials have said on numerous occasions, or merely a nuisance? Falcoff clearly believes the latter, as stated in the title of his article. Falcoff is saying that Latin America survived Peron -- another “populist authoritarian” leader – and will survive Chavez as well. Thus, Falcoff has a strategy of “waiting Chavez out.” Falcoff even ignores (and therefore does not endorse) the stated US policy of containment, a policy that is poorly conceptualized and poorly implemented but has the advantage at least of recognizing that Chavez presents a threat that must be addressed. To quote Falcoff: “The United States would therefore be well advised to take a low profile and treat his regime as an unpleasant fever that will eventually pass….”

There are several problems with this approach. Above all, Chavez does not intend to be ignored. His track record of the past few years is to escalate against the US, and then escalate again when the earlier provocations are met with a weak US response. Additional US concessions will only reinforce such behavior.

Another problem with this approach is that it requires US “cohabitation” with Chavez in third countries. The US has tried this in Bolivia and it has not worked. Chavez is backing political forces in Bolivia that have already walled off Bolivia’s energy sector from the regional and global economies, and that are turning Bolivia again into a major part of the global narcotics trade. These may be desired goals for Chavez, but they cannot be shared by the United States or virtually all Latin American countries.

Finally, there are large differences between Peron and Chavez. Simply put, Peron was a a traditional Latin American authoritarian leader, where a US “waiting out” strategy made sense and containment was not needed due to Peron’s limited regional ambitions. Chavez, in contrast, is a revolutionary and a fascist as well (Chavez has a Brownshirt SA mentality) with significant regional and even global ambitions. Whereas Peron lacked resources, as well as a vision, to become active beyond his borders, Chavez has both. Chavez also has opportunity given the problem of weak Andean states and the ethnic rivalries that are beginning to develop there, rivalries that Chavez with his SA style is doing his best to exacerbate.

The second question raised by Falcoff’s article is the issue of stopping or containing Chavez. Classic appeasement policy first asserts that no threat exists, and then when the threat is manifest, that it cannot be stopped even if doing so is desirable. Falcoff has said the first and implied the second. He is wrong on both counts, for the following reasons.

Stopping Chavez is feasible because his economic model has little appeal to other Latin American countries. Aside from Bolivia, no other country has the energy base to carry out Chavez-type experiments, and even Bolivia will not qualify if its natural gas is stays in the ground, which seems likely.

Likewise, most Latin Americans will reject his theories of racial polarization. Che Guevara and the Shining Path have already been down this road by trying to radicalize the indigenous communities and failed in spectacular fashion. Even Fidel Castro could back off. In fact, Bolivia may well be the first and last testing ground for the Chavez revolution. With allies like the fascist Felipe Quispe and Bolivia’s unions, which tend to be ultra-left and Trotskyite, Chavez must be worried about losing in Bolivia.

Moreover, Chavez could soon face major opposition in the region. Brazil, for one, is concerned about being pushed out of Bolivia and fears an “amateur hour” government in Bolivia as Chavez and his allies take power. Peru is not amused by Chavez gains in Ecuador. Even Argentina, nominally a Chavez ally, is upset at losing access to Bolivian natural gas and is worried about the impact of Bolivian instability on Argentina’s fragile economy and political system. Chile is also watching Bolivia closely.

Finally, Chavez is vulnerable because his popularity is wide but not deep, Only one out of three respondents in a recent national poll approved of socialism as a goal announced by Chavez, while two in three expressed favorable views of the US. Chavez’s attacks on the Roman Catholic Church are unpopular, as is his decision to provide the FARC a safe-haven in Venezuela.

In sum, Chavez is a threat, like Mussolini or Hitler in the early days. He says what he means, and follows through on his rhetoric. He is a man in a hurry, racing ahead with grandiose regional ambitions against the possibility of declining oil earnings that would put an end to his experiment. To underestimate this threat, as does Falcoff, is not the beginning of wisdom, it is folly.

Scott Sullivan is President of Sullivan and Associates, Global Analysis. Served at the National Security Council, Crisis Management Center, from 1984-1988, and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs from 1988 to 2005, most recently in the Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He can be reached at

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