Copyright 2004 The Washington Post

The Washington Post


April 24, 2004 Saturday 

Final Edition


SECTION: Editorial; A21


LENGTH: 774 words


HEADLINE: The 'Mental Deformations' of a Comandante


BYLINE: Marcela Sanchez



  My great uncle Carlos was a celebrity in our family. He claimed to be royally titled as the oldest surviving descendant of a Spanish count, and in one of his better moments he celebrated the honor in Bogota in the company of the Spanish ambassador and other notables.

 Carlos suffered, nonetheless, from ciclotimia, a bipolar disorder. Some days, he was pure charm. On others, he was apathetic and depressed. More than once he thought nothing of running naked through the streets of the capital. 

 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has in some ways reminded me lately of Carlos, although Chavez hasn't been dashing down the streets of Caracas in the buff. Indeed for some, Chavez is one of the most charismatic and politically savvy individuals around. Yet there are lapses during which he genuinely sounds mad.

 In the course of a few days last week, Chavez sided with Iraqi insurgents, accused President Bush of financing "wars of domination" and said that if Jesus were alive he "would be confronting the U.S. Empire." He repeated threats to stop selling oil to the United States, and called for sanctions against Bush for antidemocratic practices against U.S. citizens. He also accused Colombian politicians of prodding the United States to invade Venezuela.

 There are many, including some U.S. officials, who dismiss Chavez's eruptions as tactical distractions to divert attention from the internal chaos in his country and from efforts for a recall referendum on his rule. Maybe so. But Chavez's actions are clearly driving his country into a general sense of paranoia, and the international community into evasiveness and denial.

 Venezuelan psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos, who has treated Chavez, told me in a telephone interview this week that Chavez suffers only from the "mental deformations" common to any person in power.

 Whatever Chavez's deformations, they are doing more harm to his cause than anyone or anything else. Chavez came to power in 1998 and then again in 2000 with tremendous popular support for his vision of reducing poverty and breaking down class barriers in an oil-rich country. But today that comes off as a mere madman's fantasy.

 Any talk of increases in social spending born of oil wealth is drowned out by the flood of reports about his attacks on the opposition, the press, Washington or anyone who dares challenge him.

 His irritability and impulsiveness seem to be alienating even those close to him, inside and outside Venezuela. In the presence of outsiders, according to some here who have visited him, Chavez's closest aides stand mute, perhaps wary of saying anything to set off "el Comandante."

 Those in the international community who have tried valiantly to keep Chavez and his opponents from tearing each other apart are now oddly silent. Diplomats at the Organization of American States have an interim report about the 11-month ordeal that was to lead to the referendum on Chavez. All would rather have someone else release it.

 Some believe Brazil should. But despite his early engagement with Venezuela, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva seems to have lost patience with Chavez, particularly as accusations about human rights abuses under Chavez's watch mount. Lula's Herculean effort last year to create the Group of Friends of Venezuela to help reconcile deep social and political division in the Andean nation has been for naught.

 Chavez has antagonized three of those friends -- Chile (by siding with Bolivia on an old territorial dispute), Spain (by accusing it of colonial meddling) and of course the United States. Today Washington has all but backed off completely, and like the rest of the friends -- Brazil, Mexico and Portugal -- gives no sign of any long-term planning to help Venezuela's democracy survive the Chavez era.

 Chavez's paranoia has infected others, too. Reacting to a resolution in the Colombian Senate that expressed concern last week about Venezuela's troubled democracy, Venezuelan legislators called for an investigation of Colombia's arms race and its alleged preparations for invading Venezuela. Nothing could be further from Colombia's intentions -- it already has enough madness to deal with on its own.

 But it has fewer troubled  minds. Carlos died 10 years before I was born. But while he was alive, my family twice had to make the painful decision to send him to an asylum. He never hurt anyone, even in his darkest days, and for the most part didn't hurt himself. But then again, he was never president. The most responsibility he could ever claim was to be the count of a small villa in Spain that probably never existed. 


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