Nearly 200 years ago Venezuelan patriot Simón Bolívar declared his country a free and sovereign state, and went on to liberate four other South American nations from Spanish colonial rule, envisioning a confederation of Andean republics that would stretch from the isthmus of Panama to the high plateau country of Bolivia. His dream inspired another, decades later, when a young Hugo Chávez, then an Army officer in his late 20s, gathered with some of his military colleagues in the Venezuelan city of Maracay on the anniversary of Bolívar's death and declared, "There is Bolívar in the sky of the Americas, watchful and frowning ... because what he left undone remains undone to this very day."
Chávez has attempted to finish the job ever since. Already "the most influential head of state in Latin America," according to a critical biography by Venezuelan writers Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, his guiding star has always been Bolívar, who at the apex of his career exerted an influence that went far beyond the borders of his native land. Bolívar, in 1819, merged Venezuela with Colombia and Ecuador to found the Republic of Gran Colombia. He was subsequently appointed chief of state in the newly independent nations of Peru and Bolivia, and believed Venezuela would carry more heft as part of a larger entity than it could ever hope to acquire on its own. "Only a Venezuela united with New Granada [Colombia] could form a nation that would inspire in others the proper consideration due to her," he argued in 1813.
Chávez also renamed his native country—the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela—in one of his first acts after his Inauguration in 1999. And he too has attempted to transform the nation into a powerful regional player that would serve as a counterweight to the hegemony of a foreign power, the United States. His goal, according to a recent government document, is the "consolidation" of a left-wing alliance that encompasses Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia and the strengthening of "alternative movements in Central America and Mexico" to distance them from Yankee "domination."
To achieve it he has mixed oil revenue and economic and political meddling with his neighbors with strident anti-U.S. rhetoric, much like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin have done in Iran and Russia. In the first eight months of 2007, Chávez pledged an estimated $8.8 billion in financing, aid and energy funding to more than a dozen countries in the hemisphere. But uniquely, he has also attempted to create a slew of institutions and organizations including a 24-hour news channel, Telesur, that aspires to combat what its handpicked chief calls "cultural imperialism"; a regional development bank, the Bank of the South, that will offer credit to countries on easier terms than those provided by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and a trading bloc called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) that he hoped would neutralize Washington's ongoing efforts to negotiate a hemispheric free-trade treaty.
Like his hero, Chávez has also become a force in the politics of other nations. In the run-up to the 2006 presidential election in Nicaragua, Caracas signed a deal with an association of Sandinista mayors to provide up to 10 million barrels of Venezuelan oil on preferential terms. Voters rewarded their candidate for president, Daniel Ortega, with a victory at the polls later that year. He has made similar appeals to the people of Bolivia and Ecuador, firming up support from their presidents, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. In October, Chávez urged Cuba's acting President Raúl Castro to link their two countries' fortunes more closely. "Cuba and Venezuela could perfectly form a confederation of nations in the near future," he said during a visit to Havana, channeling Bolívar's vision, if not his words. "Two countries in one."
Yet Bolívar never succeeded. Despite his attempt at drawing Latin America together, he believed he never truly had the support of enormous swaths of the population. "I shall always be a foreigner to Peruvian people and I shall always arouse the jealousy and distrust of these gentlemen," Bolívar observed in a September 1823 missive to his Colombian vice president, according to a biography by British historian John Lynch. "We will always be guilty simply by our birth: whites and Venezuelans," he complained six years later in a dispatch from Ecuador. "We can never rule in these regions."
Chávez's star appears to be getting dimmer as well. In the Mexican and Peruvian presidential elections of 2006, Felipe Calderón and Alan García defeated their closest rivals in part by portraying them as spendthrift Chávez clones who would lead those countries to the brink of bankruptcy. Opposition members of the Brazilian Senate later cited the authoritarian drift of the Chávez regime in blocking Venezuela's admission into South America's Mercosur trading bloc. Still more recently, authorities stopped a Venezuelan-American businessman at Buenos Aires's main international airport in August with a suitcase stuffed with nearly $800,000 in cash—allegedly from Chávez's associates and earmarked for the campaign of Argentina's future president Cristina Fernández.
His popular support is clearly waning, too. A 2006 Latinobarómetro survey of more than 20,000 people in 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries found that 39 percent of the respondents had a negative view of Chávez, comparable with U.S. President George W. Bush, one of the more reviled presidents in recent history. A Pew Global Attitudes survey released last June found that overwhelming majorities of Chileans, Brazilians, Peruvians and Mexicans had little or no faith in Chávez to "do the right thing" in the realm of world affairs. "Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez inspires little public confidence, even in Latin America," concluded the Pew survey. "He is widely recognized—and widely mistrusted."
Indeed, for all of his attempts to build regional institutions rooted in Caracas, there is little progress on construction. Only a handful of countries actively participate in the Telesur project, and many question whether the Bank of the South will function as a development-oriented financial institution or become another propaganda tool for Chávez's foreign policy. While the bank enjoys the official imprimatur of seven South American countries, Peru and Chile have joined Colombia in shunning it thus far and the lion's share of the financial institution's startup capital is expected to come from Venezuela and Brazil. The sixth summit of the ALBA trading-bloc alliance, scheduled to be held in Caracas in December, was postponed, but only two foreign chiefs of state—Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Ortega—had planned to attend. Their nations rank among the poorest in Central and South America. Meantime, governments in three of the fastest growing economies, Colombia, Peru and Panama, ignored the ALBA initiative and instead signed free-trade agreements with the United States.
Chávez's meddling in the politics of other countries has also angered neighbors and undercut his efforts to promote greater regional integration. Last week Chávez suffered a major embarrassment when he failed to obtain the release of three hostages held by guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. His overheated rhetoric attracts headlines—he has called a number of world leaders devils, fascists and other choice words—but little respect. "Chávez has crossed the line on too many occasions recently, and he's run into a rough patch not just at home but also in the region," says Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue policy-research group. "There are very few Latin American governments that will reject his largesse, but there hasn't been a great embrace of Chávez's regional projects."
If history is any guide, this rough patch is likely to continue. In December, Venezuelan voters rejected a change to the Constitution that would allow Chávez to stay on indefinitely. The Liberator had a similar interest in creating a lifetime presidency—and it, too, aroused intense opposition from political elites in the foreign countries he helped unshackle. His insistence on maintaining a unified Gran Colombia angered powerful players in Venezuela who eventually seceded from the union and barred Bolívar from returning to his homeland in the final year of his life. He died of tuberculosis, at 47, in lonely exile in the Colombian port of Santa Marta, soon after writing a letter to a former comrade-in-arms in which he enumerated the lessons he learned. First on the list: "America is ungovernable, for us." And despite Chávez's plans and rhetoric, it seems it will be equally so for him.