Yesterday on his 700 Club show, right-wing televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, in a major international provocation, openly called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chávez Frias. After calling him a "dangerous enemy to our South," Robertson claimed that Chávez's Venezuela was "the launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism." He continued: "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with." Among his other comments, he added, "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don't think any oil shipments will stop." Since uttering his outrageous remarks, Robertson has neither retracted them nor apologized. Instead, he's refused further comment, and I wouldn't doubt that more insanity comes out of his mouth in the near future.
Venezuela's officials responded immediately, calling his statements a "call to terrorism." Venezuelan Vice President Vicente Rangel responded, "This is a huge hypocrisy to maintain an antiterrorist line and at the same time have such terrorist statements as these made by Christian preacher Pat Robertson coming from the same country," while Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Álvarez, declared that "Mr. Robertson has been one of the president's staunchest allies. His statement demands the strongest condemnation by the White House." Although the White House has yet to issue a statement, a State Department spokesman called Robertson's comments "inappropriate." Strangelovean Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted in a news conference that there were no plans to take Chávez out, but that private citizens had the right to make such statements. (There probably is no law against US citizens issuing threats against foreign leaders, though Robertson's comments sound like clear evidence of terroristic plans, especially given the way terrorism has been defined over the last five years.) According to Yahoo!'s report, Chávez, on his way back from a three-day visit to Cuba, said of Robertson, "I don't even know who this person is." (Based on the power, access and media reach of this crackpot, Mr. Chávez, you just might want to find out.)
Some evangelical Christian associates of the 75-year-old ultraconservative minister, who has been linked to the African diamond mining trade that funded the murderous, region-destabilizing regime of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, and whose support for abortion in Communist China doesn't square with his supposed Christian beliefs, denounced his inflammatory statements on the basis of their violation of basic Christian principles and teachings ("Thou shalt not kill"; "Thou shalt not bear false witness"; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, etc.). The New York Times reports that Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, issued a statement urging Robertson to "immediately apologize, retract his statement and clarify what the Bible and Christianity teaches about the permissibility of taking human life outside of law." Other evangelicals released similar comments, though tellingly (damningly), the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition all claimed to be "too busy" to comment. I guess there's just so much else for these "Christians" to be concerned about--like denouncing judges they disagree with, demonizing homos, and pushing a theocracy in the US--than addressing the wacko statements of an ally who's meddling, in the most dangerous way, with foreign states and their leaders. The Times also reported that "Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate, just as it did when Janet Jackson's breast was exposed in the Super Bowl broadcast in 2004." Jackson commented, "'This is even more threatening to hemispheric stability than the flash of a breast on television during a ballgame.'" Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, sending over 50% of its exports to the US. Although the Bush administration has repeatedly publicly antagonized Chávez's regime, with Condoleezza Rice haranguing the Venezuelan president shortly after she became Secretary of State, and Rumsfeld criticizing Venezuela (and longstanding US scapegoat Cuba) on his recent South American tour, Washington claims that it has no plans to attack or overthrow Chávez (where would the troops come from? Would they be diverted from Colombia, where US actions have received almost no media or public oversight?). Given the US's insatiable oil needs, which aren't going to end anytime soon, and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East (in Iraq, the war of words with Iran, the "peak oil" situation in Saudi Arabia, etc.), which isn't going to end anytime soon, alienating Venezuela is a perilous prospect indeed. It's unlikely that Chávez would turn off the spigots completely, but while the current administration may strongly disagree with his politics and ideology, it's another thing to abet bellicose statements like Robertson's that just might push Chávez towards vengeful, punitive action, which might have severe repercussions for the US economy.
Chávez initially led an unsuccessful coup against the Venezuelan government in 1992, was jailed, and later won election on a reformist, anti-poverty platform in 1998. He immediately began to revise the political system, setting up a parallel constitutional assembly apart from the legislature that eventually passed a series of laws neutralizing the existing Congress, extending the presidential term of office (to six years), and setting up a new, unicameral legislative body. In 2000, after being reelected, he pushed for a bill affording him the power to issue summary, binding decrees, which he did 49 times in one month in 2001. He survived an attempted coup in 2002, led by elites and established unions, that the US government initially hailed (and is alleged to have supported), and later won a recall referendum on his rule, despite the best ministrations of his opponents (who again had US blessing). He is up for reelection in 2006, and polls show him the clear favorite to win with about 70% approval, particularly among Venezuela's vast population of poor and working-class voters (60% of the population), who form an electoral majority and who were virtually excluded from the franchise in the past. His political associates, through the democratic process, gained control of the Venezuelan National Assembly and many municipal and local positions, and also dominate the Supreme Court. Before his referendum win he had already begun to implement socialist policies, including using state oil company revenues to develop public health, literacy and militia programs, and since then, he has stepped up his rhetoric and actions through the Land Law, which supports taxing unused land, expropriating unused private estates, and rural and restributing the land in grants to peasant farmers (over 80% of Venezuela's land is held by 5% of the population), though he has offered to compensate landowners if they can prove legal title. Nevertheless, squatters have already moved onto many properties. He also has continued to use oil revenues for public projects and programs, including funding for neighborhood associations that nurture his political base, and pushed for joint programs with neighboring oil producers, like Brazil.. One of the few Latin American leaders to champion his Indian and African heritage (which also cannot help him with the elites in his country or in Washington), Chávez is infamous for his long, Castro-stylerants on state TV, which have included denunciations of his political opponents and enemies as well as of Bush, particularly over the Iraq War, the invasion of Haiti, and US trade policies in general. He has allied himself with Iran, and in 2000, in his capacity as OPEC head, became the first Western leader to meet with Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. Chávez's domination of Venezuela's electoral system and, within the limits of the country's democratic system, his increasingly autocratic rule, are causes for concern. Yet he is wildly popular in Venezuela. Several reports I've seen on TV have allowed to go unchallenged the notion that he is a dictator, when he actually has greater popular support and has won by far greater margins than our own untrammeled, grossly unpopular president. (Actor Danny Glover is one many US public figures and activists who've met with Chávez over the last five years.)
Chávez has emerged as the leading spokesman among hemispheric leftists, pushing for greater integration with Latin American nations, and allying himself very closely with Cuba's socialist dictator Fidel Castro as well as with the democratically elected socialist or socialist-leaning presidents of Brazil (Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva), Argentina (Nestor Kirchner), Chile (Ricardo Lagos), and Uruguay (Tabaré Vázquez). While Lula has continued many of the neoliberal economic policies of his predecessor and has watched his political capital dissipate as financial scandals engulf his Worker's Party, Argentina's Kirchner has rejected out of hand many of the International Money Fund's disastrous plans and has managed to turn Argentina's economy, just two years ago the basketcase of the hemisphere, back towards growth. From an economic standpoint, most nations in the Americas depend upon trade with the United States, but few are willing to tolerate Washington's top-down any more than they have, Venezuela's possession of one of the most important world commodities, which is earning record prices today, gives it tremendous power, and Chávez has used the platform it and his position accord him to proclaim the possibilities of democratic socialism. He publicly did so at the World Social Forum in early 2005 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Whether his version of democratic statist socialism is viable remains to be seen, as it will depend upon the continuance of the wealth generated by high oil prices, his allies' continued electoral success and his curbing his authoritarian tendencies, which at times mimic those of Castro. None of these are guaranteed, but at the very least, the poor in Venezuela are experiencing an economic and social springtime under his leadership.
And then there is the United States; in addition to the US troops stationed in Colombia, the W administration also recently signed a sweeping military pact with Paraguay, against the wishes of the voters there, giving our military access to airstrips and bases, as well as to the back flanks of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia (whose working class and poor, mostly Indian majority have twice in the last several years forced out elitist, neoliberal incompetent autocrats), Ecuador (where workers have paralyzed the gas industry), while indemnifying US soldiers from prosecution of any sort from actions committed there. Venezuela is only a short flight away. Rumsfeld (yes, him again) was recently in Paraguay and Peru, bucking up the disastrous regime of Alejandro Toledo (whose approval rate is actually lower than W's, at a measly 16%) and negotatiating favorable terms for US military forces there as well. Any sort of action against Venezuela or its leader is strongly inadvisable; the US has enough of a mess on its hands in Iraq, with North Korea and Iran pushing their nuclear capacities as far as they can each day, and other crisis spots across the globe.
Yet W & Co. have repeatedly shown that they want Chávez out, in a way possible and as soon as possible, so perhaps Robertson, who has a history of making deranged comments (such as nuking "Foggy Bottom"or blaming hurricanes on gays or saying that "activist judges" were worse than 9/11) and a shady public profile in general, wasn't speaking out of turn. Though political assassinations have been illegal in the US since 1976, perhaps Robertson was voicing what he's heard or has been asked to float into the public discourse, even if it points to yet another one of the worst actions this country could involve itself in, not that that has every stopped the US before, least of all now.
Update: After first denying that he had called for Chávez's assassination and then denying to Chávez critic and former Venezuelan ambassador Thor Halvorsson that he had used the word "assassination," the dissembling, unhinged Robertson has now officially apologized...sort of. According to Yahoo! News, he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him." Instead of trying to twist Chávez's words, maybe a simple, "It was wrong for me, as a Christian, as a major US public figure and a close ally to the President of the United States, to call for the assassination of a foreign leader, no matter how much I may disagree with him and his policies." I doubt this will be enough for Venezuela's officials, and I also wonder what W's officials, like Cheney and Rove--since I doubt W himself got involved--said to Robertson to make him utter even these words. The White House itself, and at the very least the US Secretary of State, should issue an official statement, that includes an apology. Fat chance of that, though....