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U.S., Chavez foundered on free trade

Associated Press
A girl salutes outside Friday’s funeral ceremony for Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela.

Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president famous for anti-American rhetoric, died Tuesday. He referred to the United States as “a bad person,” “an assassin” and “a violent invader.” He wondered aloud whether the United States was responsible for a spate of cancer diagnoses among Latin American leftists. Perhaps most famously, Chavez called George W. Bush the devil and claimed the U.S. president left a sulfur smell around the U.N. speakers’ podium. What did the United States do to make Chavez so mad?

It pushed free trade. No one knew quite what to make of Chavez when he rose to international prominence in 1998. A Venezuelan historian who resigned from Chavez’s constitutional reform commission told the Associated Press in 1999: “One doesn’t know if Chavez is a fascist, a communist, an anarchist, a Peronist, a Fidelist. We just don’t know. Maybe he’s none of that, maybe he’s all of it.” The most common charge at the time was that Chavez was a potential dictator, and U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela John Maistos denied candidate Chavez a visa to visit the United States on those grounds. Nevertheless, after his election, there were some green shoots suggesting that Chavez and the United States could enjoy an amicable working relationship. Chavez vowed to leave U.S. investments intact. (He later reneged.) He personally charmed the editorial board of The Washington Post by rejecting “irresponsible populism.” As impossible as it may seem today, Chavez wielded the ceremonial gavel at the New York Stock Exchange and threw the first pitch at a Yankees game in 1999.

The relationship took a decisive turn at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001. The Bush administration’s top priority was finalizing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have extended NAFTA throughout the Americas (excluding Cuba). Chavez was convinced the agreement would entrench disparities between the region’s wealthy and poor countries. He accused the Bush administration of bullying smaller neighbors and treating the free trade agreement as a certainty “written on Moses’ tablets.” Although Chavez and Bush made weak attempts at reconciliation – they told each other they wanted to be “friends” on the summit’s final day – the meeting showed Chavez that his surest path to global significance was as an opponent of the United States. Chavez repeatedly claimed the CIA was trying to assassinate him and that the United States attempted to oust him from office in 2002.

The fracturing of the relationship bears a startling resemblance to the course of interactions between the United States and Fidel Castro, another cancer-stricken Latin American leftist leader. During the Cuban revolution, Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times wrote in adoring terms about the youthful crusader: “Havana does not and cannot know that thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro.”

After seizing power, Castro visited the United States and met with Vice President Richard Nixon, who thought Castro had strong leadership qualities despite being “incredibly naive” about communism. The Cuban revolutionary even took the opportunity to visit Yankee Stadium.

(Visiting Yankee stadium is a must-do for politicians from baseball-loving Latin America. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, with whom the United States enjoys reasonably good relations, threw the first pitch at Yankee Stadium and rang the NYSE bell in 2009.)

The bond with Cuba soured over economic issues, just as the U.S.-Venezuela relationship would decades later. Castro nationalized property of American companies and wealthy Cuban citizens early in his regime, putting him in conflict with the United States, which repeatedly tried to overthrow and assassinate him.

Brian Palmer writes The Explainer column for Slate.