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This article was published 17/12/2009 (4091 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The newly released poll of 20,200 people in 18 Latin American countries conducted by Latinobarometro, a Chilean-based firm, shows that when asked to evaluate foreign leaders on a scale from zero to 10 -- with zero being "very bad" and 10 being "very good" -- Latin Americans gave Chavez the worst rating among a list of 17 regional and world leaders.
What may be just as bad news for the Venezuelan president: The leader who topped the list was the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who got a score of seven.
Obama was followed by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, with a rating of 6.4; Spain's King Juan Carlos, with 5.9, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, with 5.8 each. Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Costa Rica President Oscar Arias received 5.7 each.
At the bottom of the list are Cuba's behind-the-scenes ruler Fidel Castro, with four points, and Chavez, with 3.9.
Interestingly, Chavez has a better image within Venezuela than outside, the Latinobarometro study shows. The Venezuelan president enjoys a 50 per cent positive image at home, whereas his approval rating is 41 per cent in El Salvador, 33 per cent in Bolivia, 27 per cent in Argentina, 18 per cent in Honduras, 16 per cent in Peru, 15 per cent in Chile, 13 per cent in Mexico and 12 per cent in Colombia.
The poll's overall results are amazing, considering the tons of money Chavez is pouring into highly publicized foreign-aid projects.
According to a study by Venezuela's Primero Justicia opposition party, based on official government announcements, Venezuela spent $53 billion in "presents" to other countries in the four years ending in December 2008. That's the equivalent of $14.5 billion a year.
The figure includes Venezuela's announced purchases of Argentina's foreign debt bonds as well as donations of oil to Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the United States, and schools, hospitals and other social projects across the region.
It does not include reported cases of off-the-books political assistance, such as the cash-filled suitcase accidentally discovered in Argentina in 2007. In 2009, because of falling oil prices and growing criticism at home of Chavez's largesse abroad, Venezuela's foreign aid is expected to drop to $3 billion, a researcher who is preparing a soon-to-be released update report by Primero Justicia told me.
How do you explain Chavez's low popularity in Latin America? I asked Marta Lagos, the head of Latinobarometro.
"His image in the region has gone down substantially since 2006," she said. "Latin Americans don't like other people meddling in their internal affairs. And Chavez's paternalist leadership style of giving money away and bragging about it right and left does not sit well in the region."
That becomes even more evident when you compare Chavez's low approval ratings with those of Obama and Lula, the best-liked foreign leaders in the region. The U.S. and Brazilian presidents tend to be low-key about their countries' foreign aid, and most often go out of their way not to look as if they are meddling in other countries' affairs, Lagos said.
My opinion: The Latinobarometro polls confirms what many of us have long suspected, which is that Chavez's popularity is directly proportional to the price of oil.
While he was never among the most popular leaders, when oil prices reached record highs and he was signing cheques around the clock in 2008, he was seen by more people than today as a leader who is seriously committed to helping the poor. Now that oil prices are lower and Venezuela's foreign aid is going down, Chavez's popularity ratings have plummeted.
All of this leads me to believe that if oil prices remain at current levels, as most economists predict, Chavez's influence in Latin America is likely to decrease. We're already seeing some leftist leaders, such as El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, keeping the Venezuelan ruler at a prudent distance. Chavez's fabulous riches will probably give him enough resources to bankroll his megalomania at home and in a few small allied countries such as Bolivia and Nicaragua. But his Latin America-wide leadership project is fizzling.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.
--McClatchy-Tribune Information Services