Here in New York, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been causing a sensation. With a recent speech at the United Nations during which he called George Bush "the devil," Chavez turned up his rhetorical bombast on the White House. "I can still smell sulfur in the room," Chavez added, referring to Bush's earlier address at the United Nations. Yesterday, while touring Harlem, Chavez went even further, calling Bush a "sick man" and an alcoholic.
It's not the first time that Chavez has relied on such mud slinging.
Personally, I preferred Chavez's prior characterization of Bush as "Mr. Danger," a more droll term than the devil.
But beyond the mere rhetoric, what does Chavez hope to achieve through this verbal assault? By bashing the White House, Chavez surely shores up his domestic constituency, the Venezuelan poor. And he may enhance his stature world wide as a combative, hemispheric leader.
However, the long term impact of Chavez's remarks upon the domestic U.S. political scene is unclear. While many on the liberal left in New York will not disagree with Chavez's opposition to Bush (U.S. interference in Venezuelan affairs, documented in meticulous detail in my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S., has been a longstanding concern of political activists here), the rest of the country is another matter.
They're watching the likes of CNN, which yesterday spent much of the afternoon deriding Chavez. On one segment, anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican William Bennett and Democrat Donna Brazzille about Chavez's visit. Both lambasted Chavez for his imprudence. From there it was on to pundit Jack Cafferty who suggested that we immediately deport Chavez back to Venezuela.
With the media getting whipped up into a frenzy over Chavez's effrontery, what is worrying is that the Venezuelan president might actually have a political impact on the upcoming Congressional elections in November and tip the scale towards the Republicans. While the GOP looks vulnerable, Bush has recently been surging in the polls by stoking the public's fear of terrorism. He's also been doing a fair amount of saber rattling towards Iran, a nation that Chavez has warmly embraced.
Will Chavez play into Bush and Republican hands? The Democrats have been momentarily cast off balance by Chavez's visit. Even liberal Congressman Charlie Rangel of Harlem criticized Chavez for his rhetorical excesses. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi went even farther, calling Chavez "a thug." The Democrats, it seems, fear that close identification with Chavez could cost them politically.
In a very cutthroat sense, they might be right.
During the recent presidential election in Peru, the more nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala embraced Chavez. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan leader made no secret of his antipathy towards Humala's challenger, Alan Garcia.
Chavez taunted Garcia in much the same way that he is doing now with Bush.
The tactic backfired: Garcia exploited the issue, charging that Chavez was blatantly interfering in Peru's domestic politics. Garcia went on to beat Humala in the general election and Chavez was discredited.
Does Chavez know what he is doing? The Venezuelan leader likes the limelight, but his actions may have unforseen consequences.
Nikolas Kozloff received his Ph D in Latin American history from Oxford University and is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (St. Martin's Press)