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02/06/2006 | Latin Leaders Discover A Chavez Embrace Can Be Toxic

Reuters Staff

Bolivia's President Evo Morales calls him "my brother" but elsewhere in Latin America, political leaders are finding out that being seen as a close ally of Hugo Chavez can be harmful for their careers.

 

As a tripartite alliance between Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba began taking shape after Morales took office in January, there have been signs of irritation in the rest of the continent with the way the Venezuelan leader is trying to convert Latin America to his populist, anti-U.S. agenda.

Two key elections -- Peru on Sunday, Mexico on July 2 -- could well hinge on the extent to which voters identify candidates with Chavez, according to analysts in the two countries.

In Peru, polls showed a sharp drop in support for a former army officer, Ollanta Humala, after Chavez backed him in what some saw as undue interference in Peruvian affairs. That did not faze Chavez. In a live television broadcast from Bolivia, during a visit here, he branded Humala's rival, Alan Garcia, a criminal and a thief.

He urged Peruvians not to vote for Garcia, whose ratings shot up regardless. Polls now show him leading by 10 points.

"Every time Chavez speaks, everytime he interferes, it helps us (in the polls), it helps our campaign," Enrique Cornejo, Garcia's top economic aide, told foreign correspondents.

In Mexico, former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was comfortably ahead in opinion polls until his conservative opponent, Felipe Calderon, launched a series of television advertisements likening Lopez Obrador to Chavez.

Without explicitly linking them in terms of ideology -- both are leftists -- the ads juxtaposed images of Lopez Obrador and Chavez criticizing Mexican President Vicente Fox in intemperate language.

Puppies and Chatterbirds

"Fox is a puppy of the U.S.," Chavez says in the ad. "Shut up, chatterbird," Lopez Obrador says to Fox.

The ads, combined with Lopez Obrador's refusal to take part in a televised debate, knocked him into second place in the polls after running first for weeks. His ratings have recovered since and the two are now running neck-to-neck.

The private U.S. intelligence company Strafor said in a recent analysis for its corporate clients that Chavez risked wrecking his dream of uniting Latin America in a bloc free of U.S. influence with his "incessant comments on -- and downright meddling in -- the internal affairs of others."

The others include Nicaragua, where Chavez has struck a complicated deal for the supply of cheap oil to 51 towns run by mayors belonging to the Sandinista party of former president Daniel Ortega, a candidate for presidential elections.

"Everyone knows that I would like to see Daniel Ortega as the president of Nicaragua," Chavez said at the signing ceremony in Managua. "Is that interfering? No, not at all. Let them accuse me of meddling."

Nicaraguan leaders promptly did. The deal sparked charges that it was designed as an underhand mechanism to finance the election campaign of Ortega, whose Cuban-backed government fought rebels armed and financed by the U.S. in a protracted civil war in the 1980s.

The elections are scheduled for November 5 and analysts say it is too early to gauge whether the Chavez embrace could backfire for Ortega and add fuel to what some see as a nascent anti-Chavez movement across the region.

Even in Bolivia, where Chavez is almost as popular as Morales, the larger-than-life Venezuelan is raising eyebrows despite his pledges of substantial aid -- $1.5 billion alone for energy investments in the wake of the May 1 nationalization of the oil and gas industry.

"It's a good thing that Chavez is helping us," said Dora Villareal, a pharmacist in La Paz. "But he is all over the place, too much so."

Chavez critics inside and outside Latin America say there is unease with his thirst for confrontation with the United States.

"He is attempting, with some success, to split the hemisphere into two camps: one pro-Chavez, one pro-American," former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda said in an analysis of the Latin left.

"There is a great ideological conflict," Chavez said during a recent European tour. "On one side those who defend Washington's consensus...and on the other side us, who propose a great change."

Chavez's us vs. them strategy has so far had relatively limited concrete results. They include the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), designed as a counter to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

ALBA has three members: Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmot in Lima)

Reuters (Estados Unidos)

 


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