[Update1] [Update2: why Obama had an impossible mission]
Chavez gave a book to Obama in Port of Spain. The chavista propaganda already edited the entry for the book in wikipedia, pointing out that it went up in a few hours at Amazon, from 54,295 to 14 sales rank. Good for the Galeano estate. The wikipedia entry in Spanish is not as sanguine: as I just checked there was no editing yet, which goes to tell you that chavismo propaganda in English seems to be speedier.
The book "the open veins of Latin America" is a cult book of sorts, narrating all the pillaging and abuses along the history of the Americas. A similar book could be written about Africa, Asia and even Europe. A sad but permanent historical feature, and certainly not solved at all by regimes such as the Castros or Chavez. I have not read it, and I probably will not do so. Besides, written in 1971, it is more of a grudge book than anything of particular value to understand Latin America today after all the historical research that has come to light in the last 40 years, where even the pre Columbian cultures have been extensively revised. Though it is certainly interesting to understand the mood of the 70ies, at the eve of the violent dictatorships that punished the continent.
So how can we interpret Chavez gesture?
Is it just yet another mark of Chavez inner world fed with readings that he does not understand and even less can place into historical context? On this respect the incident reminds me of the actions of some PSF who swear on given books as the key to everything in life... A state of mind, you know, a need for certainties for people unable to be critical of the world and even less of themselves.
An unwilling but subconscious insult to Obama assuming that he knows nothing about the complex US-Latin America history? Was the book given in its English translation? That would be interesting because if Chavez really meant business the Venezuelan embassy in Washington should have shipped the translation before it got exhausted at Amazon. If it was the Spanish version then it is a cheap insult, IMO. Does anyone know?
Or just a show? This the one I favor. Kind of Occam razor, you know.
At the Alba "summit" the creeps plotted on ways to ridicule Obama, a big threat for their objectives since a lot of the generic accusations lobbed at the US for internal propaganda will not fly anymore with a black man at the White House. As luck had it, protocol wise Nicaragua's Ortega was the only one of the lot that would have the right to speak at Trinidad at premium moment. So they prepared together a speech to attack Obama and the US. The speech lasted 45 minutes, a length of time already an insult by itself to ALL attendees who had better things to do that to listen to Ortega for more than a dozen minutes. Let's just say that a minute of Lula decision making is worth a full day of Ortega.
But the drama came when the Ortega rant was an asinine resentful affair revealing only the mediocrity of the individual who after having raped his step daughter should avoid such exposure. Obama brilliance dispatched the 45 minutes horror in two sentences. And moved on.
So, Chavez, having failed in his first attempt at limelight went ahead today with this book giving, probably flown from Caracas during the night. My bet is that the only thing he gained was that form now on, just as the Queen of Spain and other such people scared by the body language of Chavez, Obama will make sure not to be put into such situations in the future. Poor Hillary, she will be sent to the front when there is such a risk......
I wonder how much this will cost Venezuela... And I am not talking about the special flight just for a book.
Contrary to my first impression, it was Obama that sought the first handshake with Chavez. I suppose he knew that in cramped Port Of Spain setting an encounter with Chavez would be inevitable and he wisely decided to strike first that way he could deal with other more important business than Venezuela. Which he did in his speech.
That explains why Chavez became the stalker and went ahead to give him a copy of Galeano's book in SPANISH!
Overall it is a big score for Obama, with a very small gesture, that he could not avoid anyway unless he were to hide behind drapes or something, he forced from Chavez a major concession as this one has announced that he will seek to renew ambassadors with the US. Just as I anticipated should be a serious gesture from Chavez in my for fun memo of a few days ago. Not to mention that it exempted Obama from dealing with Venezuela altogether for the rest of the meeting.
I suppose that Obama is used to deal with narcissistic personalities, otherwise he would not have risen to the top of the democratic party.
I am reading lots of complain about Obama actions in Port Of Spain. I suppose in conservative sites which want Obama to avenge Bush it is understandable, though misplaced as being outside the US political tradition where an incoming administration is expected to mend errors of past ones, not to avenge them. But also criticism comes from friends of mine, one going so far as suggesting that Obama should have had the OAS charter on democracy under his sleeve to give it back to Chavez.
All are unfair.
US administrations, de par its presidential system and "to the winner go the spoils", have a learning curve that can last a year or two. Rare is the president elect that has actually a real foreign policy experience. Since world War 2 there is only Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush senior who qualified (and who all had occasional real foreign policy successes). The other had only the successes that brought them their ability to select a good foreign team and listen to them. On occasion they have the good sense of retaining some of the older experienced staff but that is rather rare.
The Obama administration is not exempt of this rule. US presidents are elected on a domestic agenda where foreign policy occupies a secondary role, more or less important according to the time. And this last time was no exception as even Iraq seemed at times to be treated more as an internal matter than a foreign one.
Port of Spain was a rattle snake nest for Obama. There were at least half a dozen presidents willing to score cheap points at the US expense and at least a dozen of them too scared of them to murmur a favorable word to protect the US from abuse. It was a potential lose-lose for Obama whose only reliable friend would have been Canada. From the start, embattled Cristina Kirchner, facing a tough legislative election in a few weeks, went anti US, though at least politely and briefly. Ortega went all out, and vulgarly. But with a hand shake to Chavez and a couple of sentences Obama defused the first trap set and thought, perhaps naively but at least not without reason at first, that he could then do some real work. But Chavez pathological need to be in the forefront came up with the book giving scheme to recover the media front pages.
Indeed the media are the real guilty part there. They all prefer to cover the antics of Chavez and Obama than any substance that might come from the summit. And Chavez plays them like a fiddle, having it very clearly in his mind that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Even if Chavez might look as the lout he is in this coverage, he is covered extensively while no one speaks of Lula, or Calderon, or Uribe... That he shares front page with Obama is no problem: ¡si no la gana, la empata! If he cannot win, he cores even!
I stand by my first assessment: Obama did pretty good so far considering that all was staked against him. True, he could have done better, but as a novice president, and particularly novice about Latin matters he could have done much, much worse. In fact he probably learned a very valuable lesson: stay away from clowns! You know, the lesson that some of us learned very young in life.
Besides his real problem right now is not Venezuela or even Latin America, it is North Korea, Israel, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The Cuban thing was the only pressing matter down South and now this has been dealt with, the ball is in the court of the Castros. If they want to get into the OAS and have the embargo lifted they know what they need to do: liberalize further. Let's take bets on that.