While many in Argentina would not hesitate to call the Venezuelan president a clown or a madman, it's worth keeping in mind that a very heady dose of megalomania is a prerequisite for even dreaming of confronting a rival as overwhelmingly powerful as the United States — which is also led by a president viewed, in many quarters, as a clown and a madman.
Chávez's weapons of seduction are his superabundance of petrodollars and his obsession with a shared Latin American project.
His plan is to realize the dream of Simon Bolívar, the old utopian vision of Latin American integration that today seems more viable than ever before.
It may be that Bush chose to venture into these forgotten Southern latitudes to counter that vision. In Brazil, he tried to draw attention to the production of ethanol, an ecologically correct rival to petroleum that nonetheless depletes the earth. And in Uruguay, all Bush seemed to be trying to do was irritate the other governments of South America by promoting a Free Trade Area of the Americas project in opposition to Mercosur, the common market formed in 1991 by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, somewhat later, Venezuela.
Some Argentines criticized President Néstor Kirchner for providing his Venezuelan counterpart with such a platform, complaining that Chavez bought and paid for his visit by showering Argentina with dollars and benefits. Not so. The bargain seems fair — oil in exchange for agricultural technology and experts — and since he came to power, Kirchner has made his country the platform for several other presidents from the Americas: Fidel Castro, Michelle Bachelet and Chávez himself.
I'm no political analyst. But I'm an optimist by nature, and the feeling of empowerment that Chávez instills, and that various South American governments are endorsing, strikes me as a good engine for further progress — a means of upgrading ourselves from the status of someone's backyard into that of a truly autonomous region, beyond Chávez, Bush and every other form of demagoguery.