27/03/2013 - 10:25

Battle for hearts and minds renewed

27/03/2013 - 10:25


Save articles for future reference.

The ascension of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy could turn politics in South America on its head.

Battle for hearts and minds renewed

The ascension of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy could turn politics in South America on its head.

TWO significant events occurred in March, both with implications for South America – the death of leftist Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chavez, and the elevation of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy.

The first came on March 5, the 60th anniversary of Soviet genocidal killer Josef Stalin’s death, and the second on March 13. 

Both men hail from predominantly Catholic South America, and represent two of the dominant forces in that tormented continent – Christendom and strongarm etatism, the doctrine of giving a centralised government control over economic planning and policy.

Chavez (1954-2013) made five bids to dominate Venezuela.

The first, a failed 1992 coup d’état, resulted in a stint in prison.

The plotters dubbed their bid Operation Zamora and claimed to have been inspired by three 19th century Venezuelan figures – Exequial Zamora, Simon Bolivar and Simon Rodriguez.

After being released in 1994, Chavez embarked on a 100-day whistlestop tour of Venezuela followed by visits to several South American countries and Cuba, to meet Fidel Castro, after which the budding firebrand designated Cuba’s Marxist leader as a father figure.

Four years later, Chavez switched tack by opting for electoral politics, and won 56 per cent of the vote in the presidential contest against Henrique Roomer, who gained 40 per cent.

Chavez won three further elections: in 2000 with 60 per cent; 2006, with 63 per cent; and last year, against Henrique Caprioles, 55 per cent.

But he also faced a coup that briefly deposed him.

In early 2002, anti-Chavez mass protests degenerated into gunfights and killings that sparked a coup by military officers who’d gained civilian support.

A fearful Chavez meekly stood aside. But a wave of counter protests backing him resulted in his return to power.

Although initially moderating his hardline socialistic ways, he steadily boosted military reserve numbers, acquired more weapons, and increasingly fashioned what was essentially a military government (but was promoted as one that helped the poor).

The undisputed feature of Chavez’s 14-year presidency was a personality cult that triggered passionate support from some, revulsion by others.

Rather than opting for conciliatory gradualist reforms, Chavez preferred divisiveness based on his revolutionary ideology called ‘chavismo’.

Like Benito Mussolini, who fundamentally altered Italy between 1922 and his ousting in 1943, and Argentina’s Juan Peron, Chavez set about dramatically reshaping his country’s political order.

Kirk Hawkins of Utah’s Brigham Young University says: “Chavismo is clearly a populist phenomenon. 

“It relies on charismatic linkages between voters and politicians, a relationship largely unmediated by any institutionalised party. 

“It also bases itself on a powerful, Manichaean discourse of ‘the people versus the elite’ that naturally encourages an ‘anything goes’ attitude among Chavez’s supporters.”

Under Chavez, Venezuela witnessed intense emphasis on a leader alongside a socialistic predisposition towards economic management, resulting in ongoing expropriations and nationalisations, including its oil producing sector, and a slump in living standards.

Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: “Chavismo depended on an economic model that was clearly unsustainable that is already showing strains that will make and force whoever is in charge to make very fundamental economic changes that will be very painful to the Venezuelan people.” 

But Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of Latin American History at Southern California’s Pomona College, warned that chavismo has staying power.

“The reality is that there’s been fundamental changes in the political culture in the political landscape and that change has also been seen throughout South America,” he said.

“There is no going back. 

“The Venezuela of 2013 isn’t the Venezuela of 1998.”

Like Castroism, chavismo implies hostility towards the US, which is regularly pilloried as an evil imperialist force.

There was a public outpouring of grief at Chavez’s funeral, with high-profile mourners including Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who kissed Chavez’s flag-draped coffin, and Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus.

US President Barack Obama sent New York Democratic congressman Gregory W Meeks and former Massachusetts Democratic congressman William Delahunt, both having had ongoing personal contact with Chavez’s Venezuela.

Significantly, Chavez’s vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, was sworn in as president before the funeral, despite the constitution saying presidential elections must be held within 30 days.

“Here there are some representatives that we greet and value,” Maduro told mourners, when naming both Americans.

Most opposition politicians avoided the funeral, with Mr Capriles making it known that he saw Mr Maduro’s swearing-in as wrong since Venezuela’s constitution provided for vice-presidents to only be caretakers.

Clearly, Mr Maduro intends to continue proselytising Chavez-style politics across the western hemisphere, with help from Iran and remnant elements of Stalin’s collapsed evil empire.

Clearly also, the last thing Iran’s mullahs and the neo-Soviets in Moscow and Minsk desire is another like Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla who, as Pope John Paul II, contributed markedly to the Soviet Bloc’s implosion following the emergence of Poland’s pioneering nationwide Solidarnosc movement.

But that’s what may well have begun unfolding.

Dick Morris, the man who rescued Bill Clinton’s flagging presidency during his 1996 re-election campaign, says the stage looks set for a similar encounter.

“The twin developments of the death of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and the election of Jorge Bergoglio as pope may offer a turning point for Latin America,” Mr Morris said.

“Chavez had established an eight-country empire of minions willing to do his bidding – Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba.

“In addition, the Dominican Republic and Brazil are under his influence.

“His power is maintained by massive cash handouts to the poor to lure them to support his version of revolutionary, socialist change. 

“Free food and medical care flow freely from his oil-enriched coffers through leftist political organisations in each country. 

“While Chavez’s financial ability to sustain the flow of funds is limited by his decreasing oil production — and will soon be cut off if we stop buying his oil as our domestic production surges — but it has continued. 

“After his death, it is unlikely that his Venezuelan successors will be so interested in foreign adventures that they will divert money from domestic uses in Venezuela where they must compete with democratic forces for political power.

“Pope Francis of Argentina is a very different kind of pope. 

“He is truly a man of the people. 

“He is humble, self-effacing, and focused on issues of economic and social justice. 

“He commutes to his church every day in Buenos Aires by train from his small apartment. 

“He will bring a new kind of Gospel-focused Catholicism to Rome and will concern himself with alleviating poverty, just as John Paul II focused on fighting communism.”

“The very fact of a Latin pope is likely to stir a revival of Catholicism in Latin America, where Evangelical Protestants have lately made huge incursions.

“He has the potential to replace the fraudulent Chavez as the voice of the poor in that neglected region where a plurality of the world’s Catholics live.”

Watch Caracas and the Vatican closely over coming years, even if at times the effect and longer-term meaning of events may not be clearly evident.



Subscription Options