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U.S. Foreign Policy in the Western Hemisphere: A Conspiracy of Cancer?

January 5, 2012

When you follow commentary on Latin American political developments, it can be difficult to avoid strange news about the conspiracy theories of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. He regularly makes headlines with all kinds of anti-US and anti-OAS rhetoric.

Last week the rhetoric of Chavez hit an all time high on the Official “Wait, what??” Meter™ with his public response to the official announcement that Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK), President of Argentina, has been diagnosed with cancer.

For the sake of context, CFK has joined several other (fairly left-wing) South American political leaders in the fight against cancer: Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in addition to Chavez himself, have also fought cancer over the past few years.

The BBC provides this summary of some of Chavez’s comments:

Mr Chavez said this was “very strange” but stressed that he was thinking aloud rather than making “rash accusations”.

But he said the instances of cancer among Latin American leaders were “difficult to explain using the law of probabilities”.

“Would it be strange if they had developed the technology to induce cancer and nobody knew about it?” Mr Chavez asked in a televised speech to soldiers at an army base.

Victoria Nuland responded to the accusation that the United States was somehow responsible for the trend of cancer among leftist leaders in Latin America, denouncing his musings as “horrific and reprehensible.” Speaking on behalf of the State Department, she said that his insinuation was not worth further comment.

Here’s the thing about conspiracy theories in Latin American politics: There have been so many legitimate conspiracies in Latin America on both the left and the right over the past century that everything has the potential to look like a conspiracy to both the left and the right.

That said, two things strike me about the way Chavez shared these musings:

1) If this was, as he says, simply an unfiltered moment of thinking aloud–which would imply that he really did intend to make “rash accusations” when he called President George W. Bush “the Devil”, and then called President Obama a “clown”–how often does he have crazy thoughts like this? Is he plagued by constant anxiety over conspiracies?

2) Chavez rarely backpedals–and never apologizes–for his use of rhetoric. The way he took a proverbial step back by explaining that he was merely “thinking out loud” is certainly the closest he’s come in recent history.

On the other hand, another way for the U.S. to interpret this would be to take it as a compliment: The same man who went to Cuba for more advanced medical treatment than he’d be able to receive at home in Venezuela somehow thinks the medical professionals in the United States are so advanced that they can bottle up a non-contagious disease and spread it as a contagion, using it as a weapon of biological warfare.

As for the part about the law of probabilities, explaining the trend of cancer in South American leaders mathematically might depend on which statistics you’re analyzing. The Huffington Post informs that cancer is the second leading cause of death in the Americas:

While Latin America’s presidents have access to the best medical care in the world, most Latin Americans aren’t so fortunate. More than 70 percent of cancers in the region are diagnosed when the disease is incurable, according to the American Cancer Society.

The article continues:

The American Cancer Society reports that Latin American governments have largely ignored a cancer threat capable of bankrupting public health systems, failed to implement effective early detection programs, and left “vast underserved populations” vulnerable due to a lack of early detection and treatment programs.

The legitimate conspiracies I alluded to before have, from time to time, taken the form of human experimentation, such as the syphillis experiments in Guatemala in the 1940’s and the birth control experiments Puerto Rico in the 1950’s.

While we can’t deny this horrific track record, I think I speak on the behalf of all Americans when I say that I’d like to hope that the U.S. government has moved on to more ethical practices.

For more on cancer in South American politics, check out this summary by the CFR’s Shannon K. O’Niel: “2011 Trends in Latin America: The Region’s Presidents Battle Cancer.”

For a more scientific perspective, Brian Palmer at Slate answers the question of whether or not someone can be given cancer: “If they’re healthy, probably not.”

By all accounts, CFK’s surgery to remove the tumor went well. As a matter of fact, so far, all of the leftist South American leaders that have battled cancer (with the exception of some rumors about Chavez) seem on track for a fully recovery.

If Chavez’s musings were accurate, the U.S. hasn’t been very successful so far.

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