Hugo Chavez has a new theory: that the US has developed a secret technology and is using it to give cancer to left wing Latin American rulers that we don’t like. After all, Fidel Castro, the Hero of Venezuela himself, the president of Paraguay, the current and former presidents of Brazil and now Cristina Kirchner of Argentina have all come down with (quite different) cancers. Bringing the logical acuity and sure grasp of the laws of probability and of cause and effect that he brings to all his policy making, Chavez, the Times of India reports, has shared his reasoning with the world:
“It would not be strange if they had developed the technology to induce cancer and nobody knew about it until now … I don’t know. I’m just reflecting,” he said in a televised speech to troops at a military base. “But this is very, very, very strange … it’s a bit difficult to explain this, to reason it, including using the law of probabilities.”
Unfortunately, the US Department of State has felt it necessary to respond, calling the Chavez statements “horrific and reprehensible.” Machiavelli would have counseled an enigmatic smile and a statement emphasizing the importance of regular physical exams as there does seem to be a lot cancer around these days — and would have suggested that we go on to offer treatment in the US to President Chavez and his colleagues if they are worried.
Chavez’ statement like most of his speeches was intended more as political theater than as serious analysis of the way the world works; nevertheless it is interesting to see how the cancer charge reflects ideas he shares or thinks will jazz up his base. As a psychological portrait of a certain element of the Latin left, the speech is quite revealing.
First, the US is portrayed as immensely powerful. As a society we not only produce medical advances that others seek to imitate; we have mastered the secret technologies of cancer itself. The secrets in our labs are years beyond the pitiful, pathetic efforts of Venezuelan and Cuban scientists and health workers. Who knows what other incredible advances the capitalist world masters are holding in reserve: drones are clearly just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet this analysis of our alleged medical prowess, like much leftie analysis of our alleged political omnicompetence, is curiously disembodied from actual knowledge of how either science or power works. There are many different kinds of cancer and so far as the (settled?) science tells us, they don’t have much to do with each other. It is conceivable that US scientists might discover how to spread one particular type of cancer; it is cuckoo to think we have stumbled on a host of such techniques.
Second, this all powerful American capitalist monster is uniquely concerned with the mortal threat posed by the heroic populist revolutionary movements of Latin America. American policymakers do not actually think about Hugo Chavez very much; when they do they see him more as an irritating nuisance than mortal danger: a buzzing horsefly, not a tiger or even a cobra. The response is logical: ignore his irritating buzzing as much as possible, though when and if he prepares to land and bite (for example, if his cooperation with Iran and/or narco-terrorists linked to Hezbollah gets out of hand), one doesn’t rule out the possibility of a slap or at least a wave of the hands to make him fly off.
This is not what Chavez wants his followers to believe. There must be a cosmic drama: Don Quixote tilting at a giant. “Aspiring anklebiter” is not how the glorious leader of the Great Bolivarian Cultural Revolution wants to be known. The Colossus of the North must be dedicating the supreme gifts of its scientific imagination, the most intense and top secret efforts of its nefarious super spies and the full attention of its national security establishment and corporate state to combat the uniquely deadly threat posed by Citizen Chavez and the aroused masses behind him.
This line of thought has a long history in the Latin and Caribbean left. Most US based policy people sympathetic to Latin America think that Latin America’s relative unimportance to the US is responsible for many of the historic failings of US policy in the hemisphere. In the 1950s for example Western Europe was too important to be left to banana companies as a foreign policy playground. Corporate interests and others were often able to dominate the formation of US policy toward Latin America because nobody else was in the room.
Latin lefties often try to recast this history: America’s resource based policy toward many Latin American countries (more interest in getting the copper/bananas/tin/whatever out on the cheapest possible terms than in doing anything constructive to help the people) reflects the unique and vital importance to the US economy of Latin America’s strategic natural resources. Latin America is a central theater of American foreign policy in this view, rather than, as most Americans who think about it at all assume, a dismal and somewhat depressing backwater in America’s world efforts.
But if we are using the top cancer-causing secrets of our top scientists primarily on the Latin left, it is obvious to a child (at least to a Latin leftie child) that Latin America matters hugely to the US and indeed that the continent and its left hold the keys to the world’s future in their confident hands.
The sad truth is that even if we had invented some kind of untraceable multi-cancer agent and decided to use it, we wouldn’t be wasting it on Venezuela. There might be a wave of cancers in Iran, where recent news events point to a certain activism on the part of US and other agents. Some Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders, and perhaps a few others in the region, might suddenly show the effects of intensive chemotherapy. But as is so often the case, poor Latin America would be the orphan stepchild of US foreign policy. Maybe we would give Chavez the flu.
Finally, the cancer story bolsters another important Chavez myth: that the Latin left is united. If Lula and Chavez are both victims of the same imperialist plot, it is obvious that both are part of the same cause.
Again, from the point of view of most US policy thinkers, this is wishful thinking rather than geopolitical analysis. In the US, Lula is widely regarded as a benign figure the success of whose moderate and pro-market policies did more to check Chavez’ revolutionary career than any other force in the world. Lula showed that a left that respects the institutions of the market and of private property can develop a successful capitalist economy whose wealth can then improve the lives of the poor. The contrast with Chavez, whose misgovernment in Venezuela requires constant subsidies from his country’s irreplaceable oil wealth, could not be greater — or, from the US point of view, more positive. If the US secret government actually were running around dispensing secret medicine to world leaders, its agents would be spritzing Lula with water from the Fountain of Youth.
There is nothing trivial or contemptible about the problems of Latin America’s poor. And there is nothing wrong with the aspirations of many Latin Americans for their countries and their region to enjoy more global respect and to wield more global clout. The record of US foreign and economic policy in the region is nothing that many informed US citizens feel particularly proud about. The western hemisphere will need new approaches in the 21st century.
That is why people like President Chavez are bad news. They perpetrate the cycle of Latin impotence, corruption and failure. Had someone more like Lula come to power in Venezuela, both that country and the region would be significantly better off than they are now. Chavez had the ability to become a hero and a champion of the poor and of Latin America. He has decided instead to become a buffoon and a thug.
Even so, Via Meadia wishes him well with his health. (The US flagged prescription drug bottle in his hands in the photo was an addition by a Via Meadia tech wizard. The original Wikimedia photo shows him with a copy of the Venezuelan constitution.)