Hugo Chavez and the era of anti-American bogeymen

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine, Washington DC


Hugo Chavez is the latest outspoken critic of the US to leave the world stage. Is the era of the anti-American bogeymen at an end?

He floridly lambasted "imperial" American policies, compared George W Bush to Hitler and even warned that exporting Halloween to Latin America amounted to "terrorism".

But now Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - variously portrayed as a six-times elected champion of the people or a constitution-fiddling demagogue - is dead.

His is not the only voice vociferously opposing the US to have fallen silent.

Recent years have seen the most prominent critics of American power exit the spotlight.

Fidel Castro - who outlasted nine US presidents - relinquished his position as Cuba's president and Washington's irritant-in-chief in 2008.

Osama Bin Laden, arguably the the most potent US bogeyman of all, was killed by US forces.

Saddam Hussein was toppled. Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown. Kim Jong-il succumbed to old age.

Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - whose suspected nuclear weapons programme strikes panic in Washington - is due to hand over power in 2013, as he is limited to two terms of office.

These men may have represented a wide range of political ideologies, from socialism to secular Arab nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism.

But all were, in their own ways, icons of a tendency commonly referred to as "anti-Americanism".

The label "anti-American", though, divides opinion.

President George W Bush - who famously referred to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech - saw anti-Americanism as a visceral opposition to what America stands for. America's enemies "hate our freedoms", as he put it.

But Max Paul Friedman, history professor at American University, dismisses it as "a term that's been used to characterise almost any disagreement with US policy of the day".

America's bogeymen have tended to be cast as "not only undemocratic, but also fierce defenders of their own nationalist narratives", he says. At the same time, he notes the "anti-American" label was widely applied to liberal democracies such as France when they opposed the war in Iraq.

Where Chavez belonged on this spectrum was, of course, hotly debated.

Russell Berman of Stanford University, meanwhile, says it is possible to "distinguish between the visceral anti-Americanism of explicit stereotypes and criticism that may be legitimate".

He argues that in much of the Arab world a "combination of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism" is open to exploitation by populist leaders, and points to the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stephens in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 as one tragic outcome.

Image caption,
Anti-US feelings remain strong in much of the Muslim world

It's not immediately clear where the next generation of bogeymen will come from to take Chavez's place alongside Kim Jong-un and whoever is elected to replace Ahmadinejad.

The Arab Spring has left few leaders with the popular authority to act like traditional demagogues.

Cuba's communist regime remains intact, but under the presidency of Fidel Castro's brother Raul - a dour figure less given to incendiary rhetoric, who has announced he will retire in 2018.

Latin America has plenty of leaders still prepared to challenge US interests - Bolivia's Evo Morales, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, for instance.

But none display quite the pantomime flamboyance of Chavez, who once told a UN General Assembly that George Bush was "the devil himself" and that he had left a "smell of sulphur" in the Assembly chamber.

Even the low-level anti-Americanism detected by US leaders among opponents of the Iraq war in Western Europe - "old" Europe in Donald Rumsfeld's phrase - is in full retreat.

Image caption,
Obama's election in 2008 coincided with a change in attitudes towards the US

A Pew survey released in December 2012 found support for the US had soared in Europe following Barack Obama's election as president - even though a significant "values gap" remained over attitudes towards cultural and religious issues.

Image caption,
Psy apologised for his attack on "Yankees"

Bush's "cowboy demeanour" made it easier to meld distaste for American culture and society with opposition to US foreign policy, says Brendon O'Connor of the University of Sydney and author of The Rise of Anti-Americanism.

Oddly, the most recent international figure to have been accused of anti-Americanism is the South Korean pop star Psy, best known for his global hit Gangnam Style.

The rapper apologised after it emerged that in 2004 he had performed a song that described killing "Yankees" who had tortured Iraqi prisoners and killing their families "slowly and painfully".

This may have been going too far even for Hugo Chavez.

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