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Venezuela: A new grand theory on prosperity

The Oppenheimer Report, reprinted from The Miami Herald

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- While covering last week's meeting of 33 European and Latin American heads of state in this city, I have developed a new grand theory: A country's economic development is inversely proportional to the size of its delegation at international summits.

I'm not kidding. I'll prove it to you.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who has managed to destroy his oil-rich country's economy and create 2.5 million new poor over the past four years, led by far the biggest delegation to the III Summit of Latin America and the European Union that ended here Friday. It numbered 198 people.

Chávez's delegation included dozens of bodyguards, personal reporters and photographers, the Guadalajara daily El Informador reported.

Much like Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who didn't attend this summit but usually travels abroad escorted by more than 200 aides, Chávez flooded the summit with Venezuelan delegates.

By comparison, French President Jacques Chirac came to the Guadalajara summit with 90 aides, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder with about 70, and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero with 48, officials of their respective governments told me.

Some leaders of the rapidly growing Eastern and Central European countries that recently joined the European Union came with less than a dozen aides. Estonia Prime Minister Juhan Parts, whose country's economy has been growing by near 7 percent rates over the past three years thanks to booming investments, came with just five people.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos -- who leads the only Latin American country that has grown consistently over the past fifteen years and that has reduced its poverty levels by half over that period -- had a six-person delegation.

Why do Chávez and Castro, whose policies have massively spread poverty and repression in the name of equality, need 200-strong delegations, and the leaders of increasingly prosperous Chile and Estonia only half a dozen?

The reason is Chávez and Castro thrive from making headlines, and from creating political storms to shift world attention away from their countries' internal troubles.

At the summit, on the eve of a crucial vote in Venezuela on a recall referendum to vote Chávez out of office, Chávez denounced an alleged international plot by the United States, Colombian right-wing paramilitaries and Venezuelan oppositionists to ''destabilize the government and create chaos'' in his country.

Chávez, an elected former army coup-plotter, asked for ''international solidarity'' to avert an alleged coup that he said his enemies are preparing. Chávez critics say the allegations are a smoke screen to divert attention from possible government fraud in this weekend's vote.

While Chávez's aides warmed up the crowds before he spoke at various antiglobalization university meetings outside the summit, Chávez used his allocated 20-minute speaking time at the summit to lash out against ''you, the rich countries'' -- pointing at German Chancellor Schroeder -- for allegedly being responsible for Latin America's poverty.

Meanwhile, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, who represented Castro at the summit, spent his time at the conference demanding increasingly tougher language on a final declaration that was supposed to include a condemnation of the U.S. economic sanctions against the island.

According to three Latin American foreign ministers present at the meeting, every time Latin American and European countries approved Cuba's proposals, Pérez Roque asked for even tougher language against the United States.

At the end, the 25-member European Union got fed up, and decided to drop all references to the U.S. embargo from the final statement.

''It became obvious to us that the Cubans weren't interested in what the statement would say,'' one Latin American foreign minister told me. ``They wanted to provoke a confrontation, to come out of here denouncing European countries as U.S. lackeys.''

My conclusion: When leaders don't deliver economic progress or political freedoms, they need to constantly create conflicts and blame others for their countries' ills. And to do that, you need big delegations at international summits.

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