Back in 2006, when Hugo Chavez visited Vietnam, I got to stand with the rest of the press in the reception room at the Presidential Palace as he delivered a rather memorable little speech on all the time-honored ties of anti-imperialist tropical warmth that bound the Vietnamese and Venezuelan peoples together. As I recall much of this warmth at the time had to do with Venezuelan promises to help Vietnam build an oil refinery (promises that haven’t amounted to much yet), but there was a lot of nostalgia going on; the occasion felt like a throwback to a few decades earlier, when Nonaligned Movement strongmen would get together and embrace each other and fulminate against imperialism, capitalism and so forth. Chavez is a very charismatic guy, the Venezuelans were gorgeous and beautifully dressed, and there was much radical chic to go around. Seriously, it was a lot of fun, and I got the impression the Vietnamese took it all for exactly what it was worth, which was not much. Anyway, the most striking part of Chavez’s oration came when he said both the Vietnamese and the Venezuelans were “people of the sun”, and this innate quasi-racial warmth would always put them on the same side against the icy imperialist northerners who sought to impose their will on the world.
Reading the news of Chavez’s dramatic volte-face and decision to make nice with Obama, you have to reflect on the ways we expected Obama’s election to improve US foreign relations around the world, and the somewhat unexpected ways it actually has. In this case, it becomes somewhat harder for Hugo Chavez to invoke the solidarity of the “people of the sun” against the icy imperialist US when the face of the US is Barack Obama. That’s surely not the main factor in Chavez’s decision to make nice with Obama, but it’s part of the overall gestalt.