You've gotta feel for Hugo Chavez. Things are not going well for him. Just six months ago, the guy was on top of the world: with sky high oil prices bringing in unprecedented amounts of money into his oil-rich fiefdom and, on top of that, the best of all possible enemies holding court in the White House!
Those were the days...
In just a few short months, though, everything's fallen apart for the Venezuelan strongman. The country's export earnings have collapsed in tandem with world oil prices leaving a huge gap in his spending plans just as a worldwide credit crunch makes it much harder to borrow the difference. And as if that's not bad enough, he's also losing his all-purpose Get Out of Jail Free card, as the invaluable bogeyman of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is replaced with a man admired more or less all over the world.
It's no exaggeration to call this a crisis for Chavez: for the last eight years, high oil prices and the universal appeal of Bush-whackery really have been the two main pillars supporting his power. Suddenly, both are gone. With neither money nor a credibly demonizable enemy, Chavez is left to flail around pathetically as he tries to persuade people that no, really, Barack Obama is just like George W. Bush.
The timing here is terrible. Chavez is desperate to cement himself in power before the reality of the collapsed oil market and his non-performing gringo strawman quite sink in. In less than a month, he wants to rush through a referendum to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely, in the desperate hope that his popularity will hold out just a bit longer before the world economic crisis really bites back home and the rank cynicism of his blanket anti-Americanism is revealed as a wholesale sham. It's a long shot.
His indefinite re-election gambit, though, is just the latest hail-mary pass from a guy who's plain old run out of ideas. But then, when you've built your entire claim to legitimacy on a mythical struggle against the unfailingly evil Empire of the North, it's gotta feel like unfair competition when American voters pull a fast one on you and elect a guy nobody could possibly take seriously as a blood thirsty empire monger.
What's sad is Chavez's utter inability to adapt. Just by getting elected, Barack Obama has hopelessly scrambled his circuits. This week, Chávez was mechanically back to the kind of shrill anti-gringo rhetoric that paid off handsomely against George W. Bush but that sounds utterly unhinged when you direct it against Barack Obama.
On Saturday, Chavez called president-elect Obama the new "leader of the Empire" and accused him bitterly of "meddling" against him in Venezuela's referendum campaign...because, as you and I both know, Barack Obama had nothing better to do last week than worrying about the minutiae of Venezuelan politics.
It's just pathetic...and it's hard to overstate how badly Chavez is misreading the international mood surrounding President Obama's inauguration, how naive his attempt is to transition straight from Bush-whackery to a primitive brand of Obama-baiting that treats the two as basically interchangeable.
Nobody's buying it. Chavez has badly misunderestimated the United States' awesome capacity to reinvent itself, to recreate its identity within the structures of its own constitution. He just hasn't grasped that lines of rhetorical abuse that were lethal two days ago just can't pass the snigger test when they're targeted against Barack Obama. And without a credible enemy he can pin his failings on, he has no excuses left for the way he's bungled a full decade in power.
Shorn of the fig-leaf that all-out anti-Bushism represented, Chavez's autocratic ambitions are revealed to all the world for what they were all along. Without the veneer of revolutionary hope that rhetorical anti-imperialism provided, the Chavez experiment is exposed as a 21st century rendering of the oldest of Latin American vices: the undying thirst for unchecked, unlimited, personal power till death do us part.