Behind the spectacle of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s insults against the West lurks something more sinister than meets the eye. Chávez seeks to lead the Non-Aligned Movement in a new cold war of race, class, and nationalism, to be fought everywhere on earth, chiefly against the United States. And before he’s done, he may hurt his people and ours more than he can imagine.
In the 1950s, from the ashes of Europe’s colonial empires, there arose a wave of new “nations,” soon to be called the “third world.” Usually defined by borders of Europe’s own creation, these states were represented by whatever gang managed to get itself credentialed at the United Nations, regardless of whether their governments were in any ethnic sense national or in any political sense representative.
Trumpeting the ideals of the Enlightenment — liberty, equality, justice — these new governments were political variations on a Soviet theme. They were all collectivist. Their overriding aim was to advance their interests as states, rather than the interests of their peoples as individuals. It was expedient for them to maintain their distance from the Soviet bloc, but their overriding motivation — as for the Communists — was the enhancement and maintenance of political power.
For this cause, the well-being of their people was readily sacrificed. As British historian Paul Johnson asked in Modern Times, “Why sweat at the thankless task of keeping a poor country fed and clothed when the world stage beckoned?” Taking the stage at the Bandung conference of 1955, Indonesian President Sukarno made plain what to his mind brought together the 27 states present there: “We are united … by a common detestation of colonialism in whatever form it appears!” he cried. “We are united by a common detestation of racialism.”
Here was the first lie, in some ways the original sin, of the Non-Aligned Movement. Sukarno spent two decades fashioning Indonesia (an administrative unit of the Dutch empire comprising a dizzying number of nationalities, languages, and religions) into an amazingly brutal Javanese empire, at the precise moment that the West was beginning to turn tolerance into a source of civic strength. From the start, the Non-Aligned Movement was defined by the gulf between its humanist rhetoric and the callous inhumanity of is exercise of power, as the tortured people of East Timor and others would learn.
Soon after the NAM came into existence, it took over the United Nations.
Already by the time of the Bandung conference, none of the founding premises of the United Nations obtained any longer. The permanent members of the Security Council were no longer allies, and they no longer represented a majority of the world’s population. The focus of world diplomacy shifted to the General Assembly, where, as Dean Acheson wrote, “What was reasonable and right would be determined by majority vote; and just as the equality of man led to one man one vote, so the doctrine of the ‘sovereign equality of states’ led to one state one vote.”
But this was a viciously and indeed childishly anti-democratic concept. In fact, it structurally favored collectivism over liberal democracy because it shifted primary focus from the rights of individuals to the rights of states — all under the banner of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. As Paul Johnson and others have suggested, the United Nations should have been scuttled then-and-there in favor of NATO and the other alliances that would in practice carry out the work the U.N. was meant for. Instead, it became a forum and shelter for collectivist dictatorships, the very same “brutal and savage forces” the United Nations was born to defeat.
Chávez has been compared to Benito Mussolini, but in the domestic propagation of social violence and economic disaster, Sukarno, Nasser, Perón, and Chávez’s mentor Fidel Castro are much more apt analogies. They all maintained their domestic popularity on the basis of pitiful handouts to the poor and high-profile invective against a convenient external enemy, playing on popular paranoia and hatred, ruining their economies, and aggravating tensions in the great global conflicts of their day. And all were motivated almost exclusively by political power: They intimidated dissenting voices, ignored or replaced their constitutions, and took the wealth they claimed for their peoples as expense accounts for themselves, their friends, and their international intrigues.
But Chávez represents something new in postwar history. Chávez seeks to divide the world into two camps, two poles in opposition: north v. south, colored v. white, collectivist v. democratic, “humanist” v. “capitalist imperialist.” Turning the United Nations into its power center, the Non-Aligned Movement, rising as a new hostile superpower in a new cold war, will find itself increasingly drawn to the intoxicating poison of violent Muslim extremism. And the United Nations is now its home base.
For all their pitifully unintended comedy, last week’s events in the General Assembly represent an ominous milestone in modern history. Anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism have long been a hallmark of the General Assembly; and the world’s myriad of petty dictatorships have long found in that forum both real comfort and false dignity. But never before have their rants been so unified in content and purpose. And never have their international intrigues been so extensively coordinated, now along an arc stretching from South America, across the Middle East, and to the Pacific Rim.
Venezuela has not just negotiated dozens of trade agreements with Iran, lobbied others to vote against every U.S. initiative in the various bodies of the United Nations system, and embraced every American enemy who dares show his face in public. Behind the scenes, Chávez’s intelligence services are working to assist Iran in expanding its global reach, south to Bolivia, north to Cuba, and throughout Latin America. Hezbollah, a semi-autonomous proxy of Iran’s intelligence services, has long had a presence in South America. Now, it will be able to enjoy the capital, human, and technological resources of an international network of states. Iran has been quick to exploit this opportunity, exploring the possibilities of shipping missiles and other dangerous capabilities as close to our shores as Cuba.
With this threat gathering in our own backyard, what should the United States do?
First, repair to history. Remember that the legacy of the Non-Aligned Movement’s first generation was largely wiped out by its second. Nasser was followed by the capitalist and ultimately pro-American Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. In Indonesia, Sukarno was followed similarly by Suharto, and then by democratically-elected presidents. Perón was followed eventually by (mostly) pro-American presidents who were decidedly capitalist, even if they weren’t very good at it. Ultimately, the inevitable failure of the collectivist experiment impels people toward democracy and liberalism.
Alas, in Cuba, Castro was followed by more and more of Castro. But even in Cuba, power is devolving from the person of Fidel Castro, now a feeble and dying old man who is no longer allowed to speak publicly, to a set of governing institutions in uneasy and dynamic competition with each other. Cuba is entering what for Communist dictatorships in their twilight is a highly characteristic period of bureaucratic disintegration.
Recently, senior Cuban officials have been markedly less strident and anti-American than Venezuela, Bolivia, or Iran. And one former administration official says that the Cuban military is growing increasingly resentful of Venezuela’s heavy-handed and disrespectful approach.
Indeed, the behavior of Hugo Chávez cannot but alienate Cubans of all stripes. After his famous General Assembly speech, Chávez hosted a press conference at the same time as Cuba’s vice president was addressing the Assembly. Not only did Chávez not bother to show up for the comments of his Cuban “friend,” but he stole the international media spotlight. This humiliation can only have been deeply resented by those Cubans who brought it upon themselves.
In this crucial dimension of the War on Terror, what counts, as in Indonesia, Egypt, and Argentina, is American diplomacy. America’s diplomats should reach out — however discreetly — to Cuba and other countries where significant elements of the government see no future on the Chávez bandwagon. The lodestone should be flexibility. A lot is riding on the deftness, imagination, and resourcefulness of President Bush.
Viewed in this light, it may be the Helms-Burton law, which strengthened the embargo against Cuba and was designed to tie Bill Clinton’s hands, has outlived its usefulness. By tying President Bush’s hands at exactly the wrong moment, it may quickly become an aid to our enemies, pushing Cuba deeper into Chávez’s nest at the precise moment when many of Cuba’s Communists may realize that their country’s future depends upon friendship with the United States. It is worth recalling that in most cases, Communism in Europe was ended by Communists, and that elections were often a final step in the dismantling of the old regime — not a first.
As for Venezuela itself, President Bush does well not to respond to Chávez’s stunts. These children of Bandung will destroy their own legacy in due course, just as the first generation did. But in the meantime, the president should highlight the evils of Hugo Chávez in his own country — the decay of infrastructure, the lack of any investment in labor productivity, and the intimidation of Venezuela’s free press. The Non-Aligned Movement has remained true to form in one crucial respect — their humanistic rhetoric is belied for all the world to see by their selfish, oppressive, and ruinous conduct of power. Therein lies the inevitability of their demise.
– Mario Loyola is a former assistant for communications and policy planning at the Department of Defense.