King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo

Justin Vogler
13 November 2007

"Why don't you shut up?" shot King Juan Carlos, voice trembling and hand raised threateningly towards the Venezuelan president who had just labelled former Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, a "fascist" and a "racist".

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, teaches political science in the socio-economics department of Valparaiso University and is studying for a PhD at the department of peace studies at Bradford University, England. He has spent twelve years travelling and working on development projects in southeast Asia and Latin America and is a regular contributor to the English-language daily, the Santiago Times

Among Justin Vogler's articles in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (January 2006)

"Latin America: woman's hour" (17 March 2006)

"Mapuche: the other Chile" (20 June 2006)

"South America: towards union or disintegration" (20 July 2006)

"Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold" (9 December 2006)

"Bienvenido, Señor Bush" (8 March 2007)

"Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war" (3 April 2007)

"Chile: Pinochet's ghost, Bachelet's swamp" (8 October 2007)

Chávez didn't shut up and nor did his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, who charged the "Europeans" with not accepting their historic debt with Latin America's indigenous population. The Cuban vice-president, Carlos Lage, threw in his two cents against Aznar and then Daniel Ortega let rip against the Spanish energy giant Unión Fenosa, accusing them of massive fraud in their dealings with Nicaragua. It was all too much for poor Juan Carlos and the enraged monarch stood up and stormed out of the closing ceremony of the seventeenth Ibero-American summit in Santiago on 10 November 2007.

Despite the compulsory brave face, the Chilean organisers must have concluded that the event was a disaster. Far from confirming Michelle Bachelet's international standing the world saw a weak hostess unable to keep order. She spectacularly failed to silence Hugo Chávez and had to plead with King Juan Carlos for him to return for the final photos. Chávez, who initially went out of his way to woo Bachelet, now appears to have concluded that there is nothing to be gained from her, or the Chilean government's favour. He came to Santiago on a wrecking mission.

The Spanish papers had no doubt who won the spat. El Pais lauded "Don Juan Carlos" who "fulfilled his role given that the Venezuelan president's insults crossed the line of what is tolerable in relations between sovereign countries". For El Mundo's editorial "it was the King of Spain who stopped the Venezuelan caudillo in his tracks in front of all the Ibero-American leaders, telling him what someone should have told him a long time ago".

Despite the media praise, the Spanish may be well advised to rethink their approach towards the new world. No matter how popular Juan Carlos is at home, fielding a Spanish monarch in a summit packed with Latin American nationalist leaders who define themselves in opposition to imperialism is like throwing a red rag to a herd of bulls.

Chávez has always worked under the assumption that any press is good press. He came to Santiago looking to steal limelight and push himself onto the world's front pages at a time when Venezuelans are preparing to vote on his controversial new constitution. In this respect, Juan Carlos's outburst played into his hands. But for a man who models himself on independence leader Simon Bolivar, and aspires to lead the south in conflict with the north, being told to shut up by a Spanish monarch was humiliating. It is telling that the pro-Chávez Venezuelan daily Diario Vea appears to have ignored the incident.

The incoherence of cohesion

The Venezuelan president's first move after his arrival in Santiago on 9 November, Friday was to rubbish Bachelet's chosen summit theme: "social cohesion". With typical bluntness he declared that "you can have cohesion in hell". But, this time at least, there was an astute underlying message. Social cohesion is, Chávez told us, "conservative", "static" and meaningless if it isn't built on "social justice" and "social transformation".

What is happening in Venezuela?

openDemocracy's many articles on the Hugo Chávez years offer detailed, independent analysis and argument in the interests of informed understanding. They include:

Ivan Briscoe, "The invisible majority: Venezuela after the revolution"(25 August 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "All change in Venezuela's revolution?(25 January 2005)

Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson, "The United States, Venezuela, and ‘democracy promotion'"(4 August 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"(10 February 2006)

Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela" (2 March 2006)

George Philip, "The politics of oil in Venezuela" (24 May 2006)

Phil Gunson, "Bolivarian myths and legends" (1 December 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak" (28 March 2007 )

Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo" (13 April 2007)

Julia Buxton, "The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it" (4 May 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)

Phil Gunson, "Venezuela: towards elected dictatorship" (13 September 2007)

This cuts neatly to the core of Latin America's democratic predicament. Yes, stable democracy requires social cohesion. However social cohesion requires a moderately fair distribution of power and wealth. This doesn't exist anywhere in Latin America, least of all in Chile. Chávez had actually said something profound and, in so doing, revealed the summit for what it was: an expensive and ill-conceived marketing operation with no real content.

Then there was the interchange with the Spaniards. This again can be subjected to different readings. Chávez's ire was provoked by Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's recent insistence that development is impossible if countries insist on blaming external factors for their economic and political woes. This is standard neo-liberal criticism of Latin American dependency theory and is a comfortable position for any leader of a former colonial power to take.

For his part, Chávez observed that José María Aznar's documented support for the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 represented an external factor that did threaten Venezuela's political and economic stability. He went on to recount a telephone conversation he had had previously with Aznar during which the Spanish prime minister encouraged him to cut his ties with Cuba and join "our club: the first world". When Chávez raised the fate of poor states like Haiti, Aznar reportedly replied: "Chávez, these have already screwed themselves".

It was in this context that Chávez called Aznar a fascist and a worldview that divides states between "the first world" and the "screwed" certainly smacks of something not far from fascism. It is true that Chávez was almost definitely playing to the home audience. Even so, calling fascism by its name is commendable and an international summit is a good place to do it. It certainly makes more sense than mouthing vacuous sound-bites about "social cohesion".

But to go from this to saying that "a snake is more human than a fascist or a racist" is childish and makes nonsense of what could have been a thought provoking intervention. Maybe it all fitted with the objective of grabbing headlines. From outside at least, it looked like Chávez had once again gone too far and spoilt the whole effect.

The contra summit

From the conference centre, Chávez and his cohorts were rushed to Santiago's infamous national stadium for the close of the "people's" "summit of friendship and integration". These gathering are always depressing affairs in Chile. Civil society is weak and the Chilean Communist Party continues to play its historic role of co-opting and controlling social movements. Only about 3,000 people showed up to sweat it out on Saturday 10 November and instead of the colour and diversity that usually mark social forums the eye was met by a sea of red flags emblazoned with the hammer and sickle.

In place of lively debate about globalisation and global warming the air hung with nostalgia and the spectre of bygone heroes reduced by worship to monochrome: Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, Gladys Marín, Che Guevara. It didn't help that Daniel Ortega was among the first to speak. His slow rambling discourse was full of capitalism's perverse contradictions, the evil of imperialism and reminiscences of the 1978 guerrilla struggle. There was nothing that belonged to the new century and no indication that the Sandinista leader has a coherent plan for Nicaragua's socio-economic development.

The Cuban vice-president, Carlos Lage, was better. He did the obligatory roars of "socialismo o muerte!" and "Viva Fidel!" and touched the usual ports: the Cubans imprisoned in the United States for spying, the blockade and the immortality of the revolution. But he did give a concise, articulate and in many ways inspiring speech, and was alone in remembering to talk about poverty, education and health.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, didn't make the venue, fuelling speculation that he may be rethinking his links with the region's radical left. Evo Morales did come but was late and inevitably it was Chavez who dominated the proceedings.

I have sat out a number of Chávez's diatribes and every time agonised to decipher the political message behind the bombastic tomfoolery and nationalist rhetoric. It's usually tough going, Saturday was no exception. True, the speeches are not meant for me, they are meant for Venezuela's poor who live in a different socio-economic and cultural reality. I accept, maybe too charitably, that the endless babble about Simon Bolívar, Francisco de Miranda and Antonio José de Sucre are part of a concerted effort to reconstruct Latin American history on leftist terms. And I understand that all politicians, especially those who court the "great unwashed", need the common touch.

Even so, there are times when none of this is sufficient and one is forced to conclude that Chávez's verbosity is a self-indulgence that serves only to inflate his own ego. There is, I believe, good being done in Venezuela and more than anything the world needs international voices with the courage and integrity to speak truth to power and call fascism by its name.

The tragedy of Hugo Chávez is that by talking too much, he becomes too easy to ignore or, as appears to have been the case on 10 November, he lays himself open to derision. Whatever the rights and wrongs of an unelected monarch berating an elected president, King Juan Carlos got one thing right on Saturday: Chávez could certainly do with shutting up a bit.

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