November 23, 2005
How to Keep Quarrelsome Leaders at Bay

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Hugo Chávez learned from Fidel Castro that barroom language usually produces good results. Nobody wants to deal with a foul-mouthed, quarrelsome character who in the same breath calls President Bush ''a jerk'' and Mexican President Vicente Fox ``a lapdog of Yankee imperialism.''

Chávez is the neighborhood bully, always with a vulgar comment on his lips, capable of disfiguring the face of his poor wife (now his former wife) with his fists and making obscene gestures from the podium. The proper way to deal with a person of that ilk is to walk clear across the room when he shows up at a conference, lest he pulls a knife out of his sock.

This time, the broadside against Fox was triggered by the humiliating failure of Chávez's petro-diplomacy at the Mar del Plata summit. For years, Chávez tried to seduce the countries of the Caribbean and Central America, granting them advantages when they purchased crude oil. The objective of that conditioned solidarity was to recruit those poor nations into his anti-Yankee and neo-populist crusade, but his plans were dashed at the recent summit in Argentina.

When Chávez tried to crush the FTAA and free trade, Fox stood up to him and placed on the table the list of 29 Latin American and Caribbean countries that were not willing to be dragged into the abyss by the bilious Venezuelan. Only four other countries sided, without much conviction, with Chávez's Bolivarian ravings, and one of them, Brazil, might not do it for much longer. Lula, Brazil's president, also is up to the eyebrows with his bizarre neighbor, and that antipathy appears to be mutual and growing.

For his part, and beyond an understandable revulsion that has to do with good taste, Fox has powerful reasons to detest Chávez: Accorjding to published reports in Mexico, Mexican intelligence has detected that Venezuela is sending money to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, presidential candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), and even weapons to the guerrillas of the Popular Revolutionary Army.

The same sources also say that the Venezuelan Embassy lavishly finances the ''Bolivarian Circles'' that proliferate in the public universities and are dedicated to fomenting the cult of Hugo Chávez and the collectivist vocation of Mexico's Paleolithic Left.

''Won't Mexico's ruling class react with indignation to these intrusions by Hugo Chávez?'' I ask a diplomat. He answers, somewhat mournfully: ''In Mexico, nationalism coexists with malinchismo. Many Mexicans prefer to blame Fox for Chávez's attacks. They hate the victim.'' Malinche was the Indian woman who joined Hernán Cortés, and later one of his captains, and served as interpreter. She was a key figure in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

From this lamentable anecdote we deduce an old lesson that nations usually ignore: It is not possible to maintain the same type of relationship with respectful and sensible countries as with quarrelsome governments. Belligerent governments spend enormous sums recruiting supporters beyond their borders for the purpose of punishing the governments and societies with which they're in some kind of conflict.

That situation is repeated in every Ibero-American nation. When President Fox, in accordance with his country's new democratic policy, directed Mexico's delegate at the United Nations to vote with the countries that wanted an investigation of the violation of human rights in Cuba, Castro's response was to broadcast recordings of private conversations between him and the Mexican president and to spout an all-too-familiar stream of insults that were immediately reproduced by the Cuban press.

In the same manner, President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina is certain that the first time he confronts Castro he'll be besieged by mobs known as ''picketeers'' and other rabble-rousers who are fed by the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires.

The conclusion should be obvious: The only way to maintain reasonable relations with quarrelsome states is to let them know, sharply, that any intrusion in a country's internal affairs, or any attempt to create a local base of support, will be punished with an immediate break in relations.

However, I doubt that such a thing will happen, especially in Latin America, where the most frequent reaction to events of this nature is either bewilderment or defenselessness.

2005 Firmas Press

Carlos Alberto Montaner

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