Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Iran news.
When the Colombian pop star Shakira vigorously denied press reports that she had lavished President Hugo Chávez with an autographed red guitar during a recent tour of Venezuela, it was one more sign of how toxic the controversial leader’s image has become.
Mr Chávez’s government predictably railed against evil imperialism after the US this week sanctioned PDVSA, the state oil company, for supplying Iran with refined oil. But he is now being shunned by even his closest friends.
Militants of the international left are increasingly critical of Venezuela’s socialist leader, whose refusal to censure Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi, as well as his recent order to deport a Colombian linked to leftwing insurgents, is viewed with deep suspicion.
“[Mr] Chávez’s ability to influence international politics successfully has deteriorated dramatically in a short space of time,” says Heinz Dieterich, an ideologue of “21st-century socialism” who has advised Mr Chávez and once considered him a friend. Mr Dieterich says he has “lost moral authority” and that his socialist discourse is “worn out”.
Gone are the days when Mr Chávez would elicit rapturous applause for describing George W. Bush as “the devil”, as he did at the UN general assembly in September 2006. Then, Venezuela’s fractious president was at the height of his international acclaim, the Opec nation riding high during an oil boom.
But after two years of recession, his popularity and influence abroad have dwindled. Foreign policy is now taking a back seat, with Mr Chávez’s campaign for re-election next year already under way, as he focuses on solving relentless problems such as housing and electricity shortages and violent crime.
Meanwhile, many of Venezuela’s myriad international agreements, announced with great fanfare during the past decade, have been quietly forgotten.
“[Mr] Chávez bit off more than he could chew,” says Gregory Wilpert, author of Changing Venezuela By Taking Power, which is sympathetic to Mr Chávez’s revolution. “He launched all kinds of projects on just about every single foreign trip he made, without really knowing or verifying that his government had the resources – both human and financial – to carry them all out.”
Vladimir Villegas, a vice-minister in the foreign ministry until 2007, says the problem lies in Mr Chávez’s “erratic” and “arbitrary” policies stemming from a highly top-down decision-making process. “The level of consultation is minimal …[Mr] Chávez lacks people capable of saying yes or no to his ideas.”
Most disappointing has been the failure of grand infrastructure projects to materialise, like the “Great Pipeline of the South”, announced in 2005, a $20bn natural gas pipeline intended to connect Venezuela and Argentina. A separate pipeline would run to Panama. Ambitious plans for transcontinental highways and railways have also been shelved. Venezuela has also promised to build a host of oil refineries from Brazil and Ecuador to China.
The creation of a financial infrastructure has also stalled, with hopes for a regional development bank, the Bank of the South, and a regional currency, the Sucre, yet to get past the planning phase.
After storming out of the Andean Community of Nations, Venezuela’s bid to join the other regional trade bloc, Mercosur, including Brazil and Argentina, has so far fallen flat, with Paraguayan legislators refusing to allow entry.
Nevertheless, Mr Chávez’s central dream of achieving regional unity in order to stand up against the US “empire”, has seen some advances. He has spearheaded the establishment of the Union of South American Nations, and now the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, both of which exclude the US.
A subsidiary group, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (Alba), a club for the region’s leftwing regimes – Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua – had an impact, although it also seems to have stalled as its members struggle with more pressing domestic issues.
Mr Dieterich argues that the “turning point” in the decline of Mr Chávez’s international influence was the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya, former president of Honduras, triggered by fears he was too close to Venezuela’s radical leader. Peru’s leftist presidential candidate, Ollanta Humala, for example, has admitted it was “an error” to associate himself with Mr Chávez in his previous campaign.
Teodoro Petkoff, one of Mr Chávez’s most acerbic critics, wrote in a recent editorial: “There was a time when [Mr Chávez] came to believe that he was the master of the Latin American circus. Today he is just the sad clown of the cast – if it wasn’t for the fat cheque book he carries with him, nobody would want to have him around.”
Get alerts on Iran when a new story is published