Dictators and strongmen enjoy basking in their own glory. Spain's Generalisimo Francisco Franco waved from balconies to arranged crowds. North Korea's Kim Jong-il once preferred to be called "Dear Leader." Uganda's Idi Amin loved to show off in race cars. Cuba's Fidel Castro turned olive-green fatigues and seven-hour speeches into trademarks.
None managed to extend their charisma much beyond their borders. But Venezuela's authoritarian President Hugo Chavez seems to be making waves -- not only in South America, but also in the United States, throwing money around from his country's oil industry, which he controls.
Here, his government reportedly pays lobbyists up to $100,000 a month to conduct publicity campaigns and convince Congress he's a good guy, despite all the epithets he has called U.S. officials since his election in 1998.
His government supports the Venezuela Information Office, a firm employing writers and publicists operating under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Allied pro-Chavez activist groups called "Bolivarian Circles" have now surfaced in Miami, Chicago and other cities.
This weekend, Venezuela's embassy helped organize a National Solidarity Conference on Venezuela at George Washington University along with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Committee for Indigenous Solidarity-D.C. Zapatistas, and Code Pink-D.C., all a stale wind from the 1980s, when radical groups agitated to build support for Nicaragua's Sandinistas and Salvador's guerrillas.
Last fall, Mr. Chavez negotiated with selected members of Congress to sell small amounts of discount heating oil to poor neighborhoods in Northern U.S. cities, helping these officials gain political clout. Appreciated as it may have been by consumers, it came as a result of overall higher oil prices Mr. Chavez obtained by prodding fellow OPEC members to limit production. (Weeks ago, in a schizophrenic reversal, Mr. Chavez threatened to stop all exports to the United States.)
Closer to home, Mr. Chavez is friendly with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and allowed FARC units to camp in Venezuelan territory. His regime granted FARC commander Rodrigo Granda Venezuelan citizenship before he was captured on a bounty and returned to Colombia. His regional satellite TV network, Telesur, bashes Colombia for its relations with the United States, in addition to beaming Marxist propaganda throughout South America.
He has proposed two energy cartels, PetroCaribe and PetroSur, to integrate Latin America's state hydrocarbon industries under his dominion with the idea of slowly choking off regional sales to the United States. And, despite controlling the seventh-largest oil and tenth-largest natural gas reserves in the world, Mr. Chavez announced plans to acquire nuclear technology from Iran, fueling fears he may try to develop a bomb.
Just as worrisome, Mr. Chavez has embarked on an arms buildup to scare Brazil and Colombia. He touts plans to buy more than a million rifles, acquire armored vehicles, new attack helicopters and possibly fighter bombers from Russia. Recently, he called for Britain to leave the Falkland Islands.
Mr. Chavez opposes the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas, while advocating his own Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) -- a vaguely defined aid network financed largely by Venezuelan oil profits. Though the highway to Caracas' international airport is in disrepair, he has reportedly committed more than $3 billion a year in aid to Latin American neighbors with no accountability to Venezuelan citizens.
He has repressed his own citizens by confiscating property, permitted thousands of Cuban officials to form a secretive shadow regime within his government, and enacted "social responsibility" laws that make it a jailable offense to criticize public officials.
Mr. Chavez opposes the United States, its prosperity and its definition of representative democracy. Free markets and human rights have no place in his utopia. He believes neighboring democratic and market-oriented nations represent a U.S. empire of sorts, though they are sovereign states. He would create instead a confederacy of populist satraps.
The United States has worked hard to support democratic reforms and formation of fledgling markets in a region once dominated by dictators. Oddly, China and South Asian countries half a world away are adopting such formulas as they gallop toward prosperity, while retrograde carnival barkers like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro still sway crowds in our own hemisphere with loud talk and red flags. It would almost be comical -- if a lot of innocent people weren't being hurt.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times