Presidential candidates are usually happy to tout public support from prominent figures – see Mitt Romney trading back slaps with John Elway Monday night after receiving the former NFL quarterback’s nod. But don’t expect President Obama to trumpet this endorsement: Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s populist Socialist president and longtime thorn in America’s side, says he’d vote for Mr. Obama.
What’s more, the former military coup leader turned spearhead of Latin America’s leftist lurch says he’s sure that were Obama eligible to vote in Venezuela’s elections this Sunday, he’d pick Mr. Chávez. Chávez's endorsement seemed certain to rouse the fringe of conservative voters in the US who insist that Obama is a closet Socialist. Perhaps the only more provocative thing Chávez could have thrown out there, after claiming that the US president has his back, is that Obama was actually born in Venezuela.
Chávez, who pals around with the likes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and who once compared President George W. Bush to the devil, is no fan of the US and has spent his 14 years in office blasting America’s influence in Latin America.
But he has shown a soft spot for Obama. In the TV interview where he handed out his endorsement, he calls Obama “a good guy.” After Obama’s election in 2008, Chávez called him “an intelligent man” and compared him to President John Kennedy.
Obama and Chávez met at a Summit of the Americas in 2009, shook hands, and Chávez presented Obama with a book, “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”
Relations went nowhere after that. Obama kept his distance from an increasingly authoritarian Chávez, cautioning the Venezuelan leader against opening his arms to Mr. Ahmadinejad. Obama also advanced ties with Venezuela’s next-door neighbor and rival, Colombia, completing a free-trade agreement that went into effect in May.
In a TV interview during a campaign stop in Miami over the summer, Obama spoke of Iran’s strengthened ties with Venezuela and some other Latin American countries. “We’re always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe," he said. But “overall, my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us.”
Obama added that his “main concern” about Venezuela is whether the people there have the democratic space to “have a voice in their affairs” and that they have “free and fair elections” – which, he added, “we don’t always see.”
In endorsing Obama, Chávez either doesn’t understand or simply doesn’t care that receiving a Socialist leader’s endorsement is not exactly doing the US president any favors. It may also be that Chávez genuinely sees a better chance for improved US-Venezuela relations under Obama. In his interview, he said, "I wish we could begin a new period of normal relations with the government of the United States." On the other hand, those may simply be the words of a practiced politician who faces an electorate that by and large does not favor a confrontational approch to the US.
But another Socialist president, France’s François Hollande, seems to grasp that the S-word is not one that most American politicians looking to win would choose to associate with. Asked by a French reporter last week at the United Nations in New York whether he supports Obama or Mr. Romney for president, Mr. Hollande declined to say, explaining, “You can imagine what difficulty it would cause either candidate to be supported by a French Socialist!”
With Romney making a play this week to erode Obama’s high marks with voters on foreign policy and national security, the Republican challenger may be tempted to jump on the Chávez endorsement as an example of what he means when he says Obama is not “resolute” enough with America’s adversaries.
But he may want to reconsider, lest he provide an opening for the Obama camp to remind voters how Romney looked more arrogant than resolute toward one of America’s closest allies this summer, when he questioned on British soil London’s preparations for what turned out to be smashing Summer Olympic Games.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is also too smart to publicly endorse a candidate for US president. But he gave a hint of what he thought of Romney and his critique when he took a swipe at Romney’s much-vaunted job running the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, sniffing, “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”