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John H. Tucker

John H. Tucker

Posted: July 27, 2010 03:57 PM

Earlier this month Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez ordered scientists to exhume the 180-year-old remains of his hero, independence leader Simón Bolívar. But over the weekend Chávez showed his biggest bone to pick is still with America.

On Saturday, Chávez announced on State Television that the United States is accelerating a plan to attack the oil-rich nation under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking, citing a memo from a secret source inside America. The announcement capped off a frenetic two-week period in Venezuela that began with the interment of Bolívar and included an attempt by Chávez to seize a major stake of Globovision, the country's only remaining opposition broadcast outlet. By last Thursday, Chávez had formally severed diplomatic relations with backyard rival Colombia. And then, just for good measure, he threatened to halt all oil exports to America in the face of a U.S. attack.

Of course, this isn't the first time the mercurial Venezuelan leader has made anti-American accusations of dubious merit, and Latin American historians say this is just another case of Chávez being Chávez. But one still wonders why the president is ramping up the rhetoric so drastically now. Some analysts have suggested that his antics serve as an opening salvo of aggression toward Juan Manuel Santos, who will be inaugurated president of Colombia on Aug. 7, when Álvaro Uribé, an ally of President Obama, steps down. But it's equally likely that Chávez wants to upend his own country's parliamentary elections in September.

Venezuela's economy is sagging and its crime rate is spiking. Chávez's rural base is upset with him after 30,000 tons of food, destined for poor neighborhoods, was discovered rotting in Venezuelan warehouses. Chávez's socialist government is in no danger of losing the majority, but opposition parties are making inroads. In desperate need of diversion, Chávez has created a state of high alert.

"This could very well be a turning point in the direction of authoritarianism, says Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College. "At this point, Venezuela could become much more militarized and its political system more autocratic."

Other analysts say that Chávez has legitimate reason to be concerned, pointing to increased U.S. military presence around the region. Costa Rica, for example, recently authorized the entry of 46 U.S. war ships and 7,000 Marines. "The State Department under Obama has been somewhat more aggressive against Venezuela than under Bush," says Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington.

Referring to the U.S. military network in the region as "Fortress America," Venezuelan scholar Miguel Tinker Salas says: "There is a concern over why the U.S. feels this is the time to expand military presence in Latin America, given the fact there has been a legacy of U.S. intervention."

But the likelihood is that the military presence is solely attributable to the war on South American drug cartels, and that Chávez is bluffing. But at least give him credit for being dramatic. Speaking at a rally to mark the 227th birthday of Bolívar on Saturday, the Venezuelan leader read from what he called a secret memo, written from a source who, according to Chávez, correctly predicted the 2004 capture of more than 100 Colombian paramilitaries near Caracas, as well as the 2002 coup that briefly ousted him from power.

"The preparation phase in the international community, with the help of Colombia, is in plain execution ... in the United States, the execution phase is accelerating," read Chávez.

"The military operation is going to happen," he continued, "and those from the North will do it."

The State Department, of course, denies the claim, and many scholars question the legitimacy of the secret memo. "The U.S. has no possibility of Military intervention in Latin America. No way," says Carlos Blanco, a professor of international relations at Boston University, calling the secret memo a fabrication.

"This is an old movie," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington.

In response to Chávez's decision last Friday to cut diplomatic ties with Colombia -- a move that shut down the Colombian embassy and sent officials home packing -- the U.S. State Department issued a statement arguing that Venezuela must "move to prevent the use of its sovereign territory by terrorist groups." On Thursday, during a meeting held by the Organization of American States in Washington, a Colombian ambassador presented photographs of leftist guerillas drinking beer on what appeared to be Venezuelan beaches. (Chávez discredited the photos, arguing that the beer wasn't Venezuelan.)

Earlier this month, Oliver Stone released a film that served as a quasi-love letter to Chávez (complete with a sappy embrace by the two men over their shared love of the military). Stone argues in the film that Chávez is unfairly misrepresented by the U.S. media. But the film was panned by critics for its apparent deviation from facts, and for the filmmaker's tendency to mispronounce Chávez's name. (It's CHA-vez, not shuh-VEZ.)

Meanwhile, Chávez's decision to exhume Bolívar's body has been interpreted largely as another ploy to detract from other worrying news coming out of the country. Chávez called for the interment to see if his hero was the victim of assassination by poison. (Historians have long held that the Liberator died from tuberculosis.)

Following the exhumation, Chávez praised the "glorious skeleton" of his hero on Twitter. Then, after shedding a few tears, he compared the Liberator to Lazarus when he tweeted: "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Jesus Christ, our Christ, while praying in silence, looking at those bones, I thought of you. How would I like, how did I want you to come and order him like to Lazarus: 'Lazarus, come forth, it is not time to die.' All of a sudden I remembered that Bolívar is alive!"