Butt Out, Juan Carlos!

meThere was a time -and not that long ago either- when a king losing his temper meant invariably that heads were going to roll. So when Juan Carlos of Spain started foaming at the mouth and told Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to belt up I expected His Majesty to follow that with an ominous ‘or else’ and the sound of swords being unsheathed. None of this happened and an unrepentant Chavez came away with his neck and opinions intact.

The scene took place at the 17th Ibero-American summit in Santiago de Chile, a conference piquantly devoted to the theme of  ‘social justice’. Personally I wish Juan Carlos had had the self-control to fume in silence and later, away from the cameras, perhaps refuse to shake Chavez’ hand. As it was, the King (unelected, as kings always are) did not have a leg to stand on in his confrontation with the (three times elected) President of Venezuela. I might like Juan Carlos better than Chavez on a personal level (Hugo does tend to exasperate and fatigue even those who agree with him), but the irrepressible best friend of Fidel Castro had right on his side. It may or may not have been true that Spanish big business had covertly supported a failed coup against Chavez in April 2002 but it was certainly true that the former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar was and is such an unreconstituted far rightwinger that you don’t have to find yourself too left-of-centre to suspect a hint of fascism under that well-coiffed mop of hair. Had Aznar been old enough when Franco ruled the Spanish roost, José Maria -a devoted member of the Falangist student union- might well have become a favourite of the cruel Caudillo. As it was, Franco died in 1975, forcing the 22-year old to look elsewhere for a political home but he was lucky that the Spanish extreme right had largely survived its great leader. So, depending on your vantage point it is quite possible to see Aznar as a great nationalist and patriot or as a nasty fascist piece of work. It’s clear where Hugo Chavez stands on that one.

I’m not very close to Juan Carlos (although he has a reputation for getting on well with the hoi polloi) or else I would have warned him off going to the summit at all. A jamboree of heads of state from Central and South America -all countries with recent or current experience of totalitarian government and with populations steeped in poverty- is no place for a king representing the very European power that lorded it over them for three centuries. How credible can it be to have the privileged figurehead of a wealthy nation hold forth on social justice in a hall filled with men and women, Hugo Chavez among them, whose roots go back all the way to the Incas, Mayas, Yaqui and any of the other indian civilizations of Latin America that were conquered and bled dry by the Conquistadores of the 16th and 17th centuries? No, the Spanish king would have done better to have stayed at home and watch Getafe C.F. beat Barcelona by 2 goals to nil.  To see a nice guy put his foot in his mouth is an unedifying spectacle.    juan carlos

As for Chavez, he has a big mouth but his heart’s in the right place. That’s as you would expect from a man who is a thorn in the side of George W. Bush. In terms of running a government of the people, for the people and by the people he is miles ahead of the oil man from Texas. America’s poor would do well to get in touch with their Venezuelan counterparts. They’d learn of the many programmes Chavez has introduced to relieve poverty, to provide land for the landless and education for all. Since the deep troubles that followed the april 2002 coup attempt (the nadir of the crisis occurring during early 2003) Chavez’ government has achieved an economic upturn that would make Bush blush: the country’s GDP is at the highest level since he took office in 1989; oil production is up again after the crippling 2002-03 oil strikes, inflation is down, unemployment is down, the list goes on. It’s certainly true that Chavez’ heavy-handed policies sometimes cause panic and anger in media and business circles, especially those who have difficulty seeing Venezuela as anything other than America’s backyard. But, as Tony Blair can confirm: you’re either a socialist or you’re not. The Venezuelans, if nothing else, can look to Hugo Chavez in the secure knowledge that he is their man, with only their interests at heart. How many people can say that of the government that rules them? I’m Dutch and I’m not even sure I can. So remember that, Juan Carlos, the next time you’re impelled to fly off the handle.

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