This year the U.N. General Assembly was spared last year’s spectacle of a Hugo Chavez crossing himself and claiming that the podium still smelled of sulfur, after President Bush had addressed the organization. Although Chavez had officially announced his presence he changed his mind at the last minute, leaving the audience with a combination of vague disappointment and relief.
Why did Chavez change his mind? He always tries to occupy center stage but this time he felt that returning to the U.N. would not be a good move. Last year he suffered the loss of significant international prestige due to his speech and to his unsuccessful bid to sit at the U.N. Security Council, said to have cost him close to one billion dollars in handouts to countries, some of which did not even vote for him.
This year the mood in New York was even more unfavorable. The rejection suffered by his ally, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, made him think twice about joining him and having to side with the man Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger described as a “petty and cruel dictator”.
The interview given to the international press in New York by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, just before the UN event , did not help. In this interview Correa said: “I will not follow the lead of Hugo Chavez in trying to abolish limits to my re-election”. Correa stressed that he had no interest in perpetuating himself in power, which is exactly what Chavez is trying to do at this moment, by pushing a constitutional reform that would allow him to be re-elected indefinitely.
In deciding to stay away from New York Chavez was also influenced by the current situation of the negotiations for the release of the hostages in the hands of FARC. He has been accepted by Colombia as mediator in the efforts to exchange these hostages for about 500 members of FARC in the hands of the Colombian government. He knew, however, that the other two key players in this effort, Colombian President Uribe and French president Sarkozy, were getting ready to discuss this issue while in New York, without inviting him.That would have been a loss of face he could hardly afford.
Another component that might have weighed heavily in his mind to cancel his New York visit is the increasing opposition his plans of indefinite re-election are facing at home. Every day Venezuelan organizations and individuals are expressing themselves against his attempt at constitutional reform, one that would also give him permanent stay in power and total control over national finances and provincial governments. He has felt that leaving Venezuela at this moment could pose some risks, as there are signs of unrest within the Venezuelan military.
Some Venezuelan observers even speculate, half in jest, that he might have preferred staying at home to receive the visit of Hollywood actor Kevin Spacek. The recent visit of Sean Penn and the frequent visits to Venezuela of Danny Glover suggest that Chavez is trying to establish a “Bolivarian” cell in the heart of the U.S. movie industry. This would be a repetition of the process that has allowed Fidel Castro to gain support in the U.S. with the help of notorious Hollywood figures such as Martin Sheen, Ed Asner and Harry Belafonte. Chavez might well become the new “Hollywood’s favorite tyrant”.
The decision by Chavez not to go to the United Nations could have been the result of careful analysis or decided in the spur of the moment by the authoritarian leader, well known for shooting from the hip. His decision no to go to New York was taken during his Sunday TV program, in which he spoke for eight hours. In this same program he also decreed into existence 58 new universities. Since there are less than forty universities in the country this decree sounds somewhat unrealistic. In such an environment of “magic realism” currently prevailing in the country his last minute decision not to go to the U.N. was hardly surprising.