Latin American demagogues such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez have made careers with invective and outlandish accusations. Have they met their match in Donald Trump?
For decades, U.S. diplomats have tut-tutted and silently shaken their heads over the crowd-pleasing antics and public perorations of left-wing Latin American populists and demagogues south of the border, from Juan Domingo Perón to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.
They all made political careers out of baiting the American “Goliath” with incendiary invective and outlandish accusations against the evils of U.S. imperialism.
But some of these might now meet their match with the lumbering charge of U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, a harrumphing advocate of American Exceptionalism who is threatening to tear up the “soft power” policy book of current President Barack Obama and replace it with something louder and more muscular.
Trump’s fondness for belittling his opponents and critics as “losers”, “light-weights” and “liars” draws straight from the playbook of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who regularly roasted his adversaries as escualidos (loosely: “squalids”).
Chávez’s father-figure mentor, Cuba’s bellowing, bearded Comandante Fidel Castro, coined the contemptuous term “worms” for those of his countrymen who had the temerity to abandon the Socialist island paradise (the latest rapprochement with the United States has not stopped many continuing to leave).
And just as Chávez did not flinch from once using the Spanish profanity pendejo (a wide-ranging insult that can cover “idiot” to “arsehole” depending on the intended degree of strength) against former U.S. President George W. Bush, so Trump has signaled he will not shrink from calling challengers and adversaries “pussies” if the need arises.
Trump’s campaign slogan — “Make America great again” — conjures up an image of a resurgent Uncle Sam once again bestriding the globe like a Colossus, dousing global conflicts and threats with drones and bombers.
Trump’s strategy for defeating Islamic State terrorists? “I would bomb the shit out of ’em.”
Chávez and Castro, too, liked to drape themselves in their countries’ flags and histories. They presented themselves as modern re-incarnations of a string of Latin American independence heroes, from indigenous 16th century Inca rebel Túpac Amaru to South American Liberator Simón Bolívar and 19th century Cuban poet and revolutionary José Martí. Waving the flag high is as good as shouting (almost).
I covered Castro’s and Chávez’s marathonic speeches for several years. In the end I’d give the Bolivarian babbler Chávez the edge over the more classical-style orator Castro in terms of sheer length and verbosity. I’d compare extracting nuggets of news from Chávez’ speeches, which are as sulfur-laden as Venezuela’s viscous Orinoco crude (you can stand a spoon up in it), to a complex petrochemical distilling operation. It left one feeling exhausted and drained, tainted with residue.
In contrast to Chávez’s and Castro’s often encyclopedic, history-soaked and fact-studded discourses, Trump’s shorter diatribes are no less forceful in firepower. But when they are distilled for significant dialectical meat (real “news”?), they come out looking distinctly light in content, a rapid patter of put-downs references and commonplaces. “I love the poorly educated,” Trump said recently.
The Venezuelan and Cuban caudillos made a political art of conjuring up the “Ugly American” imperialist to whip up nationalistic passions and support at home and abroad, often twisting the facts and history to build up the image.
If Trump wins the U.S. presidential election in November, will they finally get something approaching the real thing?
Pascal Fletcher has more than 30 years reporting from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, mostly with Reuters and also the Financial Times. He covered Cuba from 1989 to 2001 and served three stints in Africa covering the African National Congress in exile and wars in Angola and Mozambique; elections, coups and economic development in West Africa; and as bureau chief for Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamist insurgencies in Mali and Nigeria and the death of Nelson Mandela.