A year ago, progressive activists and policy wonks descended upTon Caracas, Venezuela, for the World Social Forum, a kind of Davos conference for the global left. People packed into the Caracas Hilton to listen to panel discussions on the evils of neoliberalism and the threat posed by U.S. hegemony, and Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, gave a speech to a crowd of some ten thousand in which he called for “socialism or death.” It was a striking demonstration of Chávez’s importance as an anti-capitalist symbol. And yet, only six months earlier, in the very same hotel, Chávez’s government had hosted a rather different meeting of international luminaries. The attendees were American businessmen, and the meeting was a trade fair intended to convince American companies that Venezuela was friendly to foreign investment and eager to expand trade with the U.S.
To people on both the left and the right, Hugo Chávez is a kind of modern-day Castro, a virulently anti-American leader who has positioned himself as the spearhead of Latin America’s “Bolivarian revolution.” He calls for a “socialism of the twenty-first century,” and regularly floats radical economic ideas; during his recent campaign for re-election, he suggested he might move Venezuela to a barter system. When he spoke in front of the United Nations General Assembly in September, a day after President Bush, he said, “The devil came here yesterday.” And, just last month, after he was overwhelmingly re-elected to the Presidency, he dedicated the victory to Castro and proclaimed it “another defeat for the devil who tries to dominate the world.”