While King Juan Carlos of Spain was up to his nose in Hugo, his wife, Queen Sofia, was enjoying a souvlaki in Athens. Losing your wick is very human – he showed frustration at a man who was harassing his boss, the Prime Minister of Spain.
The international media reported the king’s retort to the haranguing coming from the Venezuelan corner was akin to a command a frustrated father hurls at his son. "Why don’t you shut up?" could be construed as rude (in English) but in Spanish there are subtleties at work. Spanish has the second person singular (te) and the second person plural (Usted) but it also has the honorific (Te). For strangers and acquaintances "Usted" is used. But the pronoun "Te" is also used. The problem now is whether the king meant to use "Te" or "te". The latter is used when addressing small children, horses and asses. The context is the determining factor. It was a formal environment and so surely the king was using the "Te" pronoun suggesting that even in botheration the king was respectful. This, for Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, will not do. The king insulted the President of Venezuela and not the man, he claims.
Hugo Chavez waits for an apology knowing full well that an apology from the king of Spain is not a simple matter. Surely, anyone who has been through a comedy that is the Spanish political scene, is capable of a discrete phone. The king would coo a few soft mea culpas and that would be that. Hugo will have none of it. In an television interview last Saturday, on the eve of a foreign visit tot the OPEC summit in Riyadh, the populist Chavez made dulcet clucking noises that some kind of apology was to be expected. He is sure to bring up the incident up with his host in Tehran, that is Iran’s lover of hate. The Iranian President will gloat behind his beard and discuss how Iran can help with Venezuela’s nuclear programme. Hugo will fly to Paris to and meet up with Europe’s shortest President, Sarkozy. Surely the French President is aware of the delicious historical ironies at Hugo’s disposal. Will he take the bait? Will king Juan Carlos rudeness come up?
Anyone watching the Chavez interview last Saturday would have lulled into believing that he, man with the dulcet tones, was the victim. Had he been using such tones at the Ibero-American plenary session, the king would not have been aroused from armchair siesta. The exchange leading up to the king’s interjection shows us that Chavez is anything but a choir boy. He was intent on knuckledusting the Spaniards. Instead he got a shellacking; it was unexpected because he is usually the one doing the shellacking. Indeed, the king probably surprised himself with his outburst. The Venezuelan President admitted, however, that he had not seen the king because he was too busy verbally mugging Spain’s Prime Minister Zapatero. "If I had heard him … I would have stared him down like an Indian, because I am an Indian and a little bit black and white." Hugo is clever. He knows that there is nothing quite as effective as the the racial card to silence liberals who waddle about with an imprecise moral compass. Why the hissing at Zapatero? Why the galled king? Why the flummoxed Spanish Prime Minister? It all stemmed from Hugo’s belief that Spain’s former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was behind his short eviction from Venezuelan presidential palace. Should we have been surprised at the brouhaha? Let us be frank, the Ibero-American conference is a forum for old colonial masters and their protegé to cock snooks at each other and do a spot of business. Hugo’s has a penchant for mixing snook cocking with business. A good time was had by all, objectives achieved.
Hugo Chavez is not very deft at playing the game. He tilts at the wrong windmills. His anti-liberal rhetoric is really an anti-USA rally cry. The state leaders of of Latin America who share Hugo’s anti-liberal stand should appreciate that he is one egg short of a dozen. I suspect they don’t care because he is the one going out on the parapet. They understand the nature of the game: any concessions he gets from the oil companies, the French, OPEC, investment banks, the Spaniards (second largest investors in Latin America after the USA), the Canadians, hell the shy Finns, they can claim as their own. When it is their turn to play hardball, they can thank Hugo because he has already softened up the competition. The hard men from INCO, the World Bank, United Fruit, Metsä Botnia and all imperialist lap-dogs. They should also be aware that he can a silly berk whose piques give no returns – other than guffaws from would be friends. During the Ibero-American conference he showed just how silly he can be. One of the summit’s declarations included a statement on social cohesion, an EU invention, but well understood to mean social justice. Hugo Chavez rejects social cohesion outright as a liberal construct. Instead wants to see social justice in place of the social inequalities the continent faces. I say tomato you say tomato.
What will be Chavez’ next step? Or more precisely, on what will Chavez step?
It is hard to tell. If the king does not apologize, that is to say the Spanish state, he may well declare war on Spain.