- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why did Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa, presidents, for now, of Venezuela and Ecuador, do it? What made them change - seemingly overnight - from fiery, fearsome supporters of the terrorist, narco-trafficking Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces [FARC], to princes of peace, pleading with FARC’s bloodthirsty gangs to stop their war against Colombia‘s government and people, and to free hundreds of kidnapped hostages?

Presidents, pundits and other assorted potentates have been abuzz in Washington, Madrid, London and other concerned capitals, but their colleagues in Caracas, Quito and Bogota knew the answer: They were forced to by the citizens of Venezuela and Ecuador.

Observers, especially on the left, proffered opinions: Mr. Chavez and Mr. Correa finally understood the FARC’s evil ways; they were preparing the ground to improve relations with the next American president; the Colombian military had wreaked so much havoc with the FARC that the increasingly ragtag guerrilla organization couldn’t prevail.

To a greater or lesser degree, all the above played a part, but there was and remains an overwhelming reason: Students, business people, academics, military all were against their leaders’ support for the notorious leftist group that had, by the turn of the century, nearly taken control of Colombia.

Mr. Chavez and Mr. Correa had no realistic choice in the matter. While they continued to relish the threat to their despised nemesis, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and to dream of financial and political benefits in abetting the FARC; their popular support went into a tailspin.

Hugo Chavez’s economic policies have created massive food shortages and an inflation rate topping 25 percent. Funneling aid estimated at more than $12 billion to friendly regimes (Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua) and rebel groups in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru was the cruelest blow to Venezuelans, at least 38 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Then there were such gambits as nationalizing successful businesses, blocking imports of badly needed foodstuffs from Colombia and rampant corruption.

As if the squandering of Venezuela’s enormous oil wealth were not enough, informed citizens watched Mr. Chavez make his regime and the country look foolish to the rest of the world, excepting such bastions of peace and probity as China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, even as the country has been a major conduit for exporting cocaine to Europe and the United States..

Rafael Correa, in office a year and a half, had been a late comer to outrageous, revolutionary, socialized governance and wanted Ecuador to catch up. The frontier with Colombia, previously well-patrolled by Ecuadorian and Colombian security personnel, quickly became - on Ecuador’s side - a replenishment and staging area for more than 160 FARC fighting units. The United States was told to pack up its long-maintained air force base; joint efforts to clear land mines along the frontier with Peru were dropped; and, a prerequisite of such regimes, a new, revolutionary constitution, was mooted.

Worst of all for proud Ecuadorians, Mr. Correa adopted a sycophantic style, echoing virtually everything voiced by the mercurial Mr. Chavez, a practice he continued by giving the FARC identical advice as his mentor after the Venezuelan’s surprise about-face. Even though public opinion clearly was against his previous course of aiding the FARC, that Mr. Correa once again echoed Mr. Chavez was, at the least, embarrassing.

To create some distance from his unpopular guru, Mr. Correa made an even more popular announcement that Ecuador would not join Mr. Chavez’s touted “Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas” grouping of revolutionary socialist regimes known as ALBA.

It has been a terrible eight months for Mr. Chavez and his disciples, including Presidents Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Mr. Morales, in office since January 2006, faces the dissembling of his country as the relatively wealthy citizenry in the eastern area around Santa Cruz rebel against his force-fed socialism. Mr. Ortega, who assumed office some 18 months ago with a 38 percent plurality over a tragically split conservative opposition, has been traveling the world using a jet aircraft loaned to him by Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, with an enormous retinue comprising his eight children, their wives, uncounted grandchildren and friends, making more than 30 trips since taking office. Complementing his 25 percent approval rating, Managua wags suggest Mr. Ortega is running the country by telephone.

And then there is President Cristina Kirchner, of Argentina, whose approval rating has fallen below 30 percent after only seven months in office. She has adopted absurd economic policies (exacting a special tax on exports, chief among them) and exchanged pledges of solidarity with Venezuela’s would-be President for Life.

In Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the once shining Marxist banner has become soiled beyond recognition, very possibly sundered beyond salvation. In none of the five countries does regime popularity reach 40 percent.

Hugo Chavez, self-appointed leader of the Bolivarian revolution, has encouraged and actively supported the political, economic and social decay of five sovereign states.

Meanwhile, back in Havana, the ideological birthplace of all this mischief, the Castro brothers’ regime celebrates the 80th birthday of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel and Raul’s long-deceased comrade, whose failure to spread revolutionary Marxism throughout Latin America ended miserably in Bolivia. With paeans including a specially staged opera and unveiling of a gigantic statue made of 75,000 keys, it is fitting that Mr. Chavez and cohorts emulate Che’s earlier humiliation simultaneously with his gala memorial.

John R. Thomson writes frequently on geopolitical matters, focused on developing countries where he has devoted 40 years to journalism and business development, and served as a senior commercial diplomat during the Reagan administration.

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