Hugo Chavez at the edge of reason

Reading Ian Bremmer's post below on the idiosyncrasies of Kim Jong-Il and Saparmurat Niyazov, I'm reminded that one of the toughest challenges for any analyst of politics is in predicting how an individual leader will make a particular decision. It's especially dangerous to assume that the president, prime minister, great dictator or "dear leader" sees his available options as we see them -- and that the key to accurately forecasting his choice is simply to find the most rational solution to his problem. He's not us, and we're not him. It's also dangerous to dismiss certain leaders as "madmen" whenever they surprise us and take some action that undermines our interpretation of their interests.

Six months ago, my friend Geoff Porter and I wrote a piece on Muammar al-Qaddafi. In it, we argued that the Libyan leader loves to spring surprises, but that his political calculations are not as crazy as they appear. Similar arguments can be made for Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- though the Iranian president made things a little tougher this week with a broadside attack on Paul the World Cup prognosticating octopus.

But what to make of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's recent decision to exhume the remains of Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary giant credited with liberating Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia from Spanish imperial rule? Conventional wisdom among historians is that tuberculosis killed Bolívar in 1830. But three years ago, not long after losing a public referendum he expected to win, Chávez began claiming that his hero had been murdered by a Colombian rival. Chávez ordered the exhumation to verify that the body buried in Bolívar's grave is in fact Bolívar, to run tests to determine the great man's true cause of death, and to rebury him among people of whom Chávez has a higher opinion.

Some say Chávez is simply manufacturing a murder mystery to divert public attention from Venezuela's deteriorating economy. True, things are bad. In the first quarter of 2010, Venezuela's economy contracted by 5.8 percent. Earthquake-ravaged Haiti is the only other country in the Western hemisphere to see its economy shrink so far this year. National oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) produces virtually all of the country's export revenue. The country's cash cow helped Venezuela produce 3.3 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in 2001. But a massive strike in 2002, the firings of thousands of PDVSA employees that followed, and the president's habit of milking the company for extra revenue have taken a toll. The government claims that it still produces 3 million bpd. Some experts claim the number is closer to 2.6 million. OPEC says Venezuela is now producing closer to 2.3 million.

In June, inflation hit 31.2 percent year on year. Venezuela imports nearly three quarters of its food, but shortages of basic foodstuffs in state-run grocery stores have eroded Chávez's popularity. A scandal erupted this spring when officials discovered tens of thousands of tons of imported food that had been abandoned to rot in state-run warehouses.

In other words, Chávez has plenty of reasons to create a diversion.

It's also true that no one does political theatre like Venezuela's president. The honor guard in blue gloves and white biohazard suits opening Bolívar's coffin made for unforgettable (official state) television. Anyone who missed the moment (and speaks Spanish) can relive the magic by reading President Chávez's live tweets from the event. 

But history suggests it would be a mistake to overestimate Chávez's sanity when it comes to Simón Bolívar. He has renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and refers to his political agenda as the Bolivarian Revolution. He has been known to punctuate public speeches with his hero's jewel-encrusted solid gold saber. Some have accused Chávez of believing he is the reincarnation of his hero.

That's not fair. In their biography of Chávez, authors Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka recount an interesting story of how this mistake was corrected in the past. During the two years that Chávez spent in prison following a failed coup attempt in 1992, a former cellmate recounted a particularly memorable night of smuggled rum, kahlua and tobacco. Chávez "began to tremble and speak like an old man," the witness remembered. Addressed as the ghost of General Bolívar, Chávez replied, "No, I'm not General Bolívar. Don't flatter me." When another inmate guessed that Chávez might be inhabited by the spirit of his great grandfather General Pedro Perez Delgado, Chávez replied "That's right my son, here I am."

Maybe it never happened. Most of the witnesses who served as sources for this story are former allies who are no longer on Chávez's Christmas list -- though a key source mentioned by name in the account is now deputy foreign minister. It does seem to fit the profile that has emerged over the years of a megalomaniacal leader who believes he must fight American colonialism just as Bolívar fought Spanish imperialists -- a man who sometimes leaps across the boundary separating fantasy from reality.

In other words, to forecast what one individual might do, we have to account for every possibility -- including that, on some subjects, the man we're studying might be just a little nutty.

Willis Sparks is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice.