Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s grandstanding at this week’s Summit of the Americas conference on Latin American affairs may have done more harm than good. Chavez interrupted a conversation U.S. President Obama was having while getting seated for the upcoming session, to hand him a book. In what was clearly an ego driven half-jest, Chavez made sure he did so when all cameras were on the seated leader. Turns out the book’s thesis is that the U.S. has been an intentionally detrimental colonial power in Latin America, wantonly leeching off its land and people for 100s of years. No one can deny there are many examples in which this is true, from the banana companies in Columbia to the flower and mining industries’ clear cutting and chemical dumping on indigenous land throughout the region to the funding coups to oust legally elected leaders, we have a long and sordid history of interfering in Latin American affairs. However, putting such a book in the hands of the already hyper-scrutinized U.S. President as publicity stunt is likely to come back and bite Chavez and the rest of Latin America hard. Its certainly left even the most progressive Latin Americanists’ minds boggling at the Venezuelan leader and some likening him to the crass relative at a fancy dinner party (see Seattle Times). (image: AP Photo/Unattributed; photoshopped image: unattributed)
As many in the U.S. will recall, the end of the election season was met with a vehement anti-racist and xenophobic turn spurred on by a Palin led McCain-Palin political strategy to cast Obama as a terrorist and a communist. Her “palling around with terrorists” rhetoric created a groundswell of racist jingoism that tapped into existing anti-internationalism and anti-black sentiment. Before the election was won it turned segments of the N. American population into a frighteningly unsafe force still threatening to tear this “union” apart.
After Obama won, the catch phrases died down but there was still talk of Obama’s middle name and the “t” word. As the economy sunk deeper, the fear of “communism” became the new rallying cry barely masking the defining characteristic of Palin’s “two Americas.” One needs only listen to conservative radio or watch Faux News and Youtube to see how the rhetoric of “communism” and “terrorism” is actually on the rise in the U.S. Or if you prefer, you can simply look at the image to the right in which supposed anti-taxation ralliers show their true fears of a black planet. Why would they assume that a black president means that white people will end up enslaved? The more important question is what does a pat on the back and an anti-imperialism book going to look like in the eyes of such irrationally racist people? (image unattributed)
Prior to this week’s Summit and the meeting with Calderon in Mexico about gun control, Obama was largely being held as a strong international statesmen by the media. His decision to expand a cooperative presence in the Americas was welcomed as much by N. American people as anyone else. And the media was largely on Obama’s side, using the Summit as another opportunity to show the Obama administration restoring faith and cooperation with the rest of the world to the benefit of all of us. It was the story of “new leadership,” “new diplomacy,” and yes, “new hope,” held up by the questionable, but celebrated, killing of Somali pirates to get a U.S. citizen back home safely. (I say questionable b/c everyone seems to forget that the pirates were being towed in by the U.S. at the time and that two men were shot despite only one holding a gun in visible line of the U.S. hostage.) Even conservatives were congratulating Obama on his successful handling of two “3 a.m. phone calls”: Korea and Somali pirates. (Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group)
Chavez could not have picked a worse time for his stunt. While he and his cronies were slapping each other on the back for their “brazen political statement,” the U.S. was errupting in declarations of potential cessation from one of the largest state’s in the Union. And while Chavez’s mugging for the camera was being broadcast around the world, other states and cities within states like California echoed the sentiment. MSNBC started rattling off the states and elected officials who were threatening a civil war like withdrawal; the ever astute Rachel Maddow, pointed out that the motivation seemed oddly the same, with regards to racial politics, this time around as well. Despite President Obama stating that taxes were in fact going down, the “tea bag protests” against taxation seeming fooled far too many. (Image: AP Photo/Mariamma Kambon)
The Chavez incident added needed fuel to what was looking like a ridiculously small fire from everyone’s coverage except Faux News. Conservatives, some of whom were still ignorantly calling the Venezuelan President Cesar, after the Chicano civil rights activist no one told them was dead and from a completely different country, seized on the friendly demeanor between the two leaders and the relaxing of sanctions on Cuban-American’s travel and remittances as signs that their “communism in our midst” argument was TRUE. They quickly turned the images like the one above into an opportunity to warn N. Americans to get ready for the pogroms. And the sad fact is, gun sales have gone up in N. America since Obama’s election and there has even been a shooting incident related to the irrational fear that Obama was going to take away N. Americans guns; a myth perpetuated by conservative radio warning that the rise of the left would mean that everyone needed to be armed. (Image: unattributed)
Even if Chavez couldn’t care less about the racialized tensions in Palin’s two Americas, he should care about Latin Americans and the oppressed groups he promised to help center under his leadership. Rather than helping his nation, and dwindling international image, with his politically charged “gift,” he has potential cut off an otherwise friendly opening. Calls of “irresponsibility” from the conservatives over the incident have already forced Obama to give a speech to the N. American people about the importance of diplomacy. Where he began the week laughing off the incident, outcry from Conservatives and protesters has left President Obama back on the defensive. Instead of basking in the accomplishments he has clearly begun in both Europe and Latin America, and outlining his plan to heal old wounds and return us to a prosperous era of mutual cooperation in the hemisphere, Obama spent the weekend trying to convince the U.S. that the work he is doing in Latin American benefits all of the Americas. Worse, he’s had to do it amidst the return of the “palling around with terrorists” phrase that held no historical truth, nor does it now, but worked so terribly well. It is unlikely that he will be “palling around” with Chavez anytime soon and Chavez has only himself to blame.
I was among the people who proudly cheered when Chavez was elected. I wrote an essay about his first speech to Venezuela in which he spoke of equality, human rights, and the role of Latin America on the global stage. And like many progressives, I have watched as the man who once represented a return to social and communal responsibility from the rich to the most marginalized became the man who seems to spend most of his time posturing and thinking up new ways to be photographed.
Watching Obama put out fires, I find myself wondering if Chavez even cares about what stunts like his have done to shift the discussion for Latin@s and African-Americans in the U.S. (since whenever anti-Obama sentiment goes up so does anti-black sentiment in general & anti-LACs sentiment of course translates to increased anti-Latin@ sentiment) and the people of Latin America. Was his book stunt really worth it or is it like Miley Cyrus’ temper tantrum about the music awards: a sign that the diva has gone too far? (Image: Fredy Builes/Reuters)