Why America Worries About Hugo Chavez

Dec. 3, 2006 — -- Voters in Venezuela today are expected to give another presidential term to Hugo Chavez, whose fiery rhetoric has made him a global spokesman for anti-Americanism.

Another victory for Chavez today could have ramifications for the U.S. and the world. Chavez has built an international reputation for speaking out against the United States and his favorite target, President Bush.

Campaigning last week, Chavez again blasted Bush.

"I warn you, Mr. Devil, we will pulverize the candidates of imperialism; we will give them the biggest knockout in the history of nations," Chavez said in Spanish.

Chavez first began calling President Bush the devil earlier this year at the United Nations General Assembly.

"Chavez is someone who wants power, and he sees himself as sort of the anti-Bush," said Michael Shifter of the policy analysis center Inter American Dialogue.

Among its many grievances against the Venezuelan president, the Bush administration doesn't like the company Chavez keeps. He's close friends with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the stridently anti-American president of Bolivia, Evo Morales.

Oil, Freedom at Stake

From an American perspective, Chavez is more than a loudmouth who hangs out with the wrong people. He's a potential threat because of oil: Venezuelan oil accounts for 13 percent of American foreign oil imports.

"Chavez has repeatedly said that he will cut off oil to the United States if the United States were ever involved in any kind of effort against him," said former state department official Roger Noriega.

Chavez has also used oil to curry favor with America's poor. Last month, Venezuelan oil company Citgo began offering discounted home heating oil to Massachusetts residents.

At home, Chavez's socialist reforms -- food subsidies, improved medical care and adult literacy programs -- and his Bush bashing have made him a populist hero to the poor. But he has little support from the middle class, which has sharply divided his country of 25 million people.

His opponent, Manuel Rosales, has united a fractured opposition. Still, polls show him trailing by a large margin.

Chavez has said he will dedicate his re-election to Castro's Cuba, and suggested that in his next term, he may push to eliminate presidential term limits and close private TV stations. Those moves could push Chavez over the edge.

"Chavez really has to watch out for going to far and not overreaching [in ways] that could cause some problems," Shifter said. "There could be a backlash -- not only in Venezuela, but internationally."