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Venezuela's Chavez Remains Magnet For Controversy

By Michael Bowman

Venezuela's Chavez Remains Magnet for Controversy

Weeks after being told to "shut up" by the King of Spain, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is now engaged in a bitter, highly-personalized war of words with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. The dual spats come as Venezuelans prepare to vote on constitutional reforms that, if approved, would allow Mr. Chavez to rule indefinitely.

Adherence to protocol and verbal restraint were hard to find at the close of the Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile earlier this month. President Chavez repeatedly blasted Spain's former prime minister as a "fascist". An irate King Juan Carlos responded with words that have become famous the world over.

He said, "Why don't you shut up?"

Mr. Chavez later demanded an apology, and said relations with Spain would be put on hold.

But just as that controversy was beginning to fade, another erupted late last week when Colombia terminated Mr. Chavez' role as mediator with the country's main leftist rebel group. President Alvaro Uribe accused the Venezuelan leader of interference, saying Mr. Chavez spoke with the head of Colombia's armed forces without Mr. Uribe's consent.

An angry President Chavez was quick to respond. He said he was putting relations with Colombia in the freezer because he had lost confidence in everyone there. He said he did not believe the Colombian government wants peace with the rebels. He said Colombia deserved another president, one with dignity.

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Mr. Chavez went on to accuse his Colombian counterpart of being a pawn of U.S. imperialism.

Mr. Uribe had words of his own for Mr. Chavez.

"You, with your insults and lack of valid arguments, are hurting the dignity of the Venezuelans you represent," he said. He said Colombia needs a mediator with terrorists, "not one who legitimizes terrorism.".

Mr. Uribe accused Mr. Chavez of manufacturing diplomatic rows for his own purposes, of labeling other leaders as agents of imperialism while pursuing his own expansionist policies through heavy-handed use of oil revenue.

Such highly-personalized attacks between heads of state are rare on the world stage, except where Mr. Chavez is concerned. Last year, the Venezuelan leader made headlines at the United Nations by calling President Bush "the devil".

Analyst Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue says, with Venezuela's massive oil reserves at his disposal, Mr. Chavez sees no need to temper his words.

"He clearly feels on top of the world with oil prices what they are," he said. "But there are some limits on how far he can go. I think he is encountering some soft spots, both domestically and internationally, because of his tremendous ambition and appetites perhaps going too far. And I think this could begin to plant the seeds of what could be the decay of his rule."

Sunday, Venezuelans will vote on constitutional reforms that would eliminate presidential term limits, redefine private property, and grant the state sweeping emergency powers, among other measures. For months, polls predicted the reforms would be approved, but the most recent survey shows public opinion swinging against the initiative.

The head of Venezuela's opposition Social Christian Party [COPEI], Luis Ignacio Planas, says it is no coincidence that President Chavez has come to verbal blows with Colombia and other nations in the lead-up to the constitutional referendum.

He says that Mr. Chavez is picking fights with Colombia, Spain, Chile, Saudi Arabia, and with the whole world, because his electoral proposals lack popular support, so he is trying to generate imaginary enemies.

President Chavez responds that, far from being ashamed of his words, he is proud to stand up and challenge his enemies.

For years, the Venezuelan leader has tried to steer Latin America away from closer ties with the United States, urging the region to form its own trading blocs and cooperative efforts. As an incentive, he has bought portions of some nations' foreign debts, bankrolled transnational development projects, and provided oil to some nations at preferential prices.

Analyst Michael Shifter says there is no doubt that Mr. Chavez' influence in the region has grown.

"Most other governments in Latin America indulge Chavez because he has resources and he is prepared to spend them," he said. "And he also has some constituencies in some Latin American countries that are critical of the United States. But I do think that these confrontations with Spain and with President Uribe will not be lost on other presidents in Latin America."

A one-time paratrooper and coup plotter, Mr. Chavez was first elected in 1998. He has been reelected several times since and survived a recall referendum. His program of "21st Century Socialism" promises to promote a more egalitarian society within a democratic framework.


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