Someone finally told Hugo Chavez to shut up, and the Spanish-speaking world can hardly stop talking about it.
The verbal slap to the Venezuelan president came from none other than King Juan Carlos I of Spain, providing fodder for satirists from Mexico City to Madrid -- and laying bare the complexity of relations between a once-imperial power and its former colonies.
Chavez was repeatedly interrupting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a summit of leaders of the Spanish-speaking world in Santiago, Chile, last weekend when the Spanish monarch could take it no more. Leaning over from his position a couple of seats away from the president, a clearly exasperated Juan Carlos said: “Por que no te callas?” -- “Why don’t you shut up?”
That the king’s admonition touched a collective nerve was evident in newspaper headlines, cable television and on YouTube. His phrase was reproduced on T-shirts and cellphone ring tones. In Mexico City, the dust-up became a skit on the satirical show “El Chabo del 8.” In El Salvador’s capital, the phrase became a playful greeting.
What was uncertain after a week’s worth of controversy was who put whom in his place. Political spinmeisters differed on which of the two men came off looking worse: Chavez for his boorish lack of etiquette, or the king for unregally insulting a national leader at a forum whose theme was “social cohesion.”
The king’s five words at the Iberoamerican Summit set off an avalanche of speculation about the political and economic repercussions, and the deeper cultural meaning of the remark in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of independence for the former Spanish colonies.
The Spanish tried to frame the incident as a simple case of the king upbraiding Chavez for not relinquishing the floor and for referring disrespectfully to former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar as a “fascist.”
Zapatero later downplayed the matter, calling it a “moment of tension” and telling reporters that the event would never have become known had TV cameras not been rolling.
After initially paying little heed to the incident, Chavez by midweek was using it to flog “imperialists,” framing it as a revelatory “moment of truth” and an example of the innate condescension of the former colonial power. The fiery leftist got help from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who sent him a letter of support.
On Wednesday, Venezuela’s state-run television channel replayed documentary footage showing Juan Carlos standing in the 1970s with Spain’s fascist ruler, Francisco Franco, and describing the king as the late dictator’s lackey. Unmentioned was the fact that the monarchy was endorsed by Spanish voters in 1978 and that the king played a key role in quashing an attempted military coup in 1981.
The outburst Saturday produced divided reactions from Latin American leaders, many of whom have themselves been victims of Chavez’s verbal onslaughts. Peruvian President Alan Garcia and El Salvador’s Tony Saca declared public support for the king, while Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended Chavez.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who ceded his time at the forum so Chavez could continue his harangue, said, “We aren’t subject to any king.”
Latin American newspapers and television commentators have had a field day. A sketch in the Colombian capital’s El Tiempo showed Chavez wearing a crown, sitting on an oil barrel and saying: “I’m the king around here.”
The dust-up also brought to the forefront the controversy over the economic “reconquest” of Latin America by Spanish businesses such as telecommunications giant Telefonica, oil company Repsol and financial behemoth Banco Santander.
In a reference to Chavez’s weekly talk show, in which he often gabs for hours, El Tiempo columnist Daniel Samper Pizano wrote that Chavez “has to learn that international meetings of heads of state are not like ‘Hello President.’ ”
Rafael Pardo, a commentator and former Colombian defense minister, believes Chavez hoped to provoke the Spaniards, looking for a crowd-stirring issue before the Dec. 2 vote on his controversial constitutional overhaul. Polls show that a majority of Venezuelans oppose the plan, which would concentrate more power in Chavez’s hands.
Armando Silva, a university professor and popular culture analyst in Colombia, was more interested in what the king’s comment signified.
“Sometimes a slip of the tongue, improvised and unconscious, lets loose an expression that is full of meaning,” Silva said. “When King Juan Carlos ordered [Chavez] to shut up, maybe he let us glimpse a small or large bit of imperial nostalgia.”
Fernando Savater, a Spanish writer and philosopher, said Friday in a commentary in Madrid’s El Pais newspaper that Spain had lost a measure of its influence in Latin America as a result of the king’s dismissal of Chavez.
“Until now, the king had executed a role that was informal and nearly paternal, as historic head of the Latin American ‘Commonwealth,’ ” Savater noted. “That function will become improbable, if not impossible, from now on.”
Juan Carlos was slammed in some quarters for endangering the interests of Spanish businesses, which have invested at least $2.7 billion in Venezuelan telephone, energy and banking companies over the last 15 years.
Chavez warned this week that Spanish investments were not “essential” and that all aspects of binational relations would be “reevaluated.” With the forced departure from Venezuela this year of several U.S. companies, Spanish firms have to take such threats seriously.
But others doubt Chavez’s criticism will resonate elsewhere across the continent. Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia are generally admired for their charitable works and efforts to unify the region, and Spain gets high marks for its liberal immigration policies, which have fostered strong transatlantic ties. A poll released Friday by Latinobarometro, a nonprofit public opinion firm based in Santiago, revealed that Chavez is no more popular in Latin America than President Bush, a frequent target of his barbs, and is less popular than Zapatero or Juan Carlos.
In Latin America, “Spain has the best image of all countries . . . much better than the United States, for example,” said Latinobarometro Director Marta Lagos
One thing is clear: The Iberoamerican Summit was an utter failure, throwing into question whether there would be another one.
Clarin, Argentina’s largest daily newspaper, said the summit would be remembered as a forum where “the differences, lack of agreements and opposing views made more noise than the accords and shared processes.”
Times staff writers Marla Dickerson and Reed Johnson in Mexico City and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome, Andrés D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau, and special correspondents Alex Renderos in San Salvador and Mery Mogollon in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.