Most of Latin America's leaders breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week, after Venezuelan voters rejected President Hugo Chávez's constitutional amendment referendum. In private they were undoubtedly relieved that Chávez lost, and in public they expressed delight that he accepted defeat and did not steal the election. But by midweek enough information had emerged to conclude that Chávez did, in fact, try to overturn the results. As reported in El Nacional, and confirmed to me by an intelligence source, the Venezuelan military high command virtually threatened him with a coup d'état if he insisted on doing so. Finally, after a late-night phone call from Raúl Isaías Baduel, a budding opposition leader and former Chávez comrade in arms, the president conceded—but with one condition: he demanded his margin of defeat be reduced to a bare minimum in official tallies, so he could save face and appear as a magnanimous democrat in the eyes of the world. So after this purportedly narrow loss Chávez did not even request a recount, and nearly every Latin American colleague of Chávez's congratulated him for his "democratic" behavior. Why did these leaders not speak out? Surely they knew of Chávez's machinations, and with the exception of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales and, to a large extent, the Argentine Kirchner duo, none of the region's heads of state sympathizes with the Venezuelan revolutionary.
The reason for the silence: these leaders know Chávez can count on a fifth column in nearly every country in the region. Even while he denounces the policies of his opponents and throws vitriol in every direction, he also uses his nation's resources to befriend their constituencies. These acolytes are devoted to his ideals and, more important, to his funding. They are boisterous, or powerful, or both, and they can make life miserable for governments ranging from the emblematic left (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil) to the liberal right (Mexico's Felipe Calderón or Colombia's Alvaro Uribe).
Over the years Chávez has picked fights, from north to south, with virtually every leader in the region. He called Calderón caballerito, "tin soldier," early this year and questioned his electoral victory last year. He said this month he would have no relationship with Colombia while Uribe, "the liar," was president. He accused the Brazilian senate of being a "Bush lapdog" and heaped scorn on anything Spanish under the sun, including the king, the government, the opposition and the banks. He warned two weeks ago that if the right-of-center opposition won next spring's election in Spain he would nationalize every Spanish corporation in Venezuela. He has meddled incessantly in his neighbors' affairs. With varying degrees of proof, stridency and significance, he is said to have interfered in the domestic politics of Mexico in last year's election, in El Salvador by funding the left-wing FMLN, and in Nicaragua by financing public works for Managua's Sandinista mayor, which led to Ortega's victory in the presidential vote. In Peru he openly backed radical nationalist Ollanta Humala in 2006. In Argentina he funded the Kirchners and the so-called piqueteros, or street fighters. He has meddled as well in Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia and, of course, Colombia, where his intervention led to a breakdown in the international mediation efforts to free a number of hostages.
His changing relationship with Chile illustrates just how shrewd Chávez can be. Michelle Bachelet once showed a mystifying affection for Chávez, given his constant tirades against her country's legislative branch, junior government coalition partners and foreign ministry. But relations cooled after he disrupted the annual Ibero-American Summit in Santiago a month ago by picking a fight with the Spanish heads of state and government. Then, after the summit, he attended a "hard left" rally at a "hard left" Chilean university known as ARCIS. Upon learning the school had lost its government funding, he whipped out his checkbook and donated a huge sum of money to the school. In view of the $250 million to $300 million Venezuela receives per day from nearly $90-a-barrel oil prices, this was just small change. But while Bachelet was not entirely pleased with this turn of events, she preferred to keep her peace, leaving it to the Spaniards to finally say enough was enough. At the summit King Juan Carlos asked Chávez to "shut up." Such an outburst was long in coming, but it was not going to spring from fellow Latin Americans.
This meddling is the reason nobody pushes back, and it is hardly surprising that regional leaders applauded his "democratic" performance last week. Chávez is willing to disregard any accepted norm of international conduct and diplomatic etiquette. But for a variety of reasons his colleagues are not. Is this a sustainable stance for Latin democracy? Probably not, in the long term. This time the region was spared the lacerating choice of condemning Chávez for electoral fraud and provoking his petro-finance outbursts and meddling, or countenancing a stolen election by looking the other way. But it may be the last time Latin America's leaders are afforded such an easy exit.