Chávez Rising

AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office

In this photo by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, center, poses with his daughters, María Gabriela, left, and Rosa Virginia at an unknown location in Havana, Cuba.

The last official photo of Hugo Chávez shows him surrounded by his two daughters, María Gabriela and Rosa Virginia. It’s a tableau of Renaissance proportions (and probably Photoshopped) that reminds followers of a saintly leader ready to be resurrected, his daughters already mourning the loss of their earthly father but preparing him to be transported to his next life. Whether Chávez can be resurrected through the election of his self-appointed heir, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, remains the next test for the cult of Chavismo that arose around this former paratrooper and failed putchist. 

The iconography of a fallen Chávez should not be interpreted as the end of an era, even combined with the death of the 58-year-old leader on March 5, when he was cut down at the height of his power by cancer. The foundation laid by this praetorian populist will endure. Chavismo as a political movement was widely seen by Venezuelans and by other leaders of the region as truly autochthonous, a force that hit the sweet spot of anti-Americanism at the right time and place in U.S.-Latin American relations. His unique blend of regionalism—he used the image and name of South American liberator Simón Bolivar, who sought to unify Hispanic America in the early 19th century—helped to create political clones like presidents Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Like Chávez, these leaders have attempted to gut democratic rule by using democratic institutions as a cover for more authoritarian actions, which include stifling a free press and packing the courts with partisan followers.

Hugo Chávez knew how to push every button that would provoke a U.S. response to his regime. He nationalized U.S. oil companies and he made common cause with some of the most repressive leaders around the globe. His friendships with the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, Iranian leader Mahmud Ahmandinejad, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad were especially troublesome; they were deliberate attempts to challenge U.S. counter-terrorist efforts after September 11 by cavorting with known sponsors of state terrorism. Qaddafi even sent emissaries to Caracas as his regime was falling to see whether Chávez would help him out and circumvent international sanctions.

Eventually, the U.S. government got smart about how to manage this blow-hard populist who not only gutted the institutions of democracy to consolidate his own power, but also managed to further the schisms between the United States other countries in this hemisphere by using his petro-diplomacy to buy friends at a time when U.S. assistance to the region was on the decline. He used his nation’s oil wealth to prop up the economically ailing government of Raul Castro. Venezuela provides 97,000 barrels of oil per day to keep Cuba afloat. Chávez also invested in projects that would win him supporters in some of the poorest nations of the Caribbean and Central America. Citizens of Nicaragua praised his largesse, allowing taxi-drivers and members of the Sandinista party to gain access to cheap gasoline in a country with no source of fossil fuel.

That his relationship with Cuba became central to his own leadership is not surprising. As a young renegade officer, Chávez devoured the leftist literature of his generation. His veneration for the tactics of his mentor, Fidel Castro, provided the oxygen for his own vision of a socialist Bolivarian state. The barter of oil for doctors worked well in that it gave Chávez a tangible benefit to deliver to his poorest citizens. Ironically, he used his oil wealth not to promote education or repair aging infrastructure, but to bring medicine from Cuba to his own country for a rapid infusion of good will. Of course many people were healed by the hands of Cuban doctors and given sight by the cataract surgeries that were once outside the reach of most poor Venezuelans. But at the end of the day, what Cuba did for Chávez was to give him legitimacy with some of the world's worst offenders of human rights rather than provide lessons about educating people and improving their lives. 

In assessing the Chávez era one thing is clear. His presence will be felt for a long time as elections in Venezuela go forward in the next 30 days. It would be hard for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, to overcome a strong advantage that Nicolas Maduro has at this point in time. It’s an open question whether Maduro can keep the country together in the face of tremendous economic challenges—from food shortages to currency problems and an oil industry that under-performs yet is its main revenue source. Couple this with a crime rate that is among the highest in South America, with 73 murders per 100,000 persons per year, and you have a nation that is on the brink of a disaster. While an ailing Chávez distracted the public from the real issues of state, it will not be easy to continue the cover-up. 

When the official mourning period ends, the tears have dried, and Chávez is finally laid to rest alongside the body of his hero, Simón Bolivar, the contrasts between the true liberator of a nation and a self-selected despot will grow clearer as Venezuela’s economic future grows more dire. Chávez’s cronies will no longer have the ability or the charisma to overcome a democratic opposition that yearns for a capable state.

Americans often confuse elections with democracy. We have never fully understood that elections do not necessarily create citizens. Venezuelans have a steep hill to climb. That nation must move beyond the ballot box to the serious task of repairing the damage to its judiciary, its legislature, and its press. This transformation may be long in the making, and for now, the United States must brace itself for a long period of rebuilding a relationship that might best be brokered by other allies in the region like Colombia or Brazil. The real losers in this game will be precisely the poor who clung to Chávez’s promises but never really understood the price the nation paid for his form of demagoguery.


Opinions differ greatly about Chavez, here are some alternatives to this weakly argued condemnation.
At the Progressive Magazine site published today March 2013 , and another essay by economist Robin Hahnel written in 2007 an excerpt of which I post below. Mark Weisbrot at has a brief essay. The hyperlinks to the three are below the Hahnel quote.
"The most dramatic increase in social spending was in the area of health care. In 1998 there were over 14,000 Venezuelans for each primary healthcare physician, and few physicians worked in rural or poor urban areas. By 2007 there was one primary healthcare physician for every 1,300 Venezuelans, and many of the new physicians were working in clinics in rural areas and poor barrios that had never had physicians before.2 There are also now 16,000 stores in poor areas throughout the country selling staples at a 30% discount on average."

Chavez was cooky, but he was democratically elected in fair elections. 3 times. The opposition hated him, sure. That still doesn't make him any more despotic than, say, FDR.

Also, it's telling that you kinda forgot to mention that the US was involved in a coup against Chavez in 2002.

As for Venezuela being on the brink of economic disaster: that's not what the numbers guys say over at CEPR (they're the ones who called the housing bubble in the US on time). Source:

I rather trust CEPR on this than some Washington bobblehead. She might as well work for the Ministry of Truth.

"democratically elected in fair elections. 3 times." Try once, the first time. After that, Venezuelan elections became less fair and less transparent. At one point over 13,000 Venezuelans from various opposition parties had been banned for life from politics on trumped up charges of corruption yet they weren't brought to trial. Chávez also stacked the Supreme Court and the National Election Council with members of his Socialist party, the former to allow not just immediate re-election (Latin American constitutions weary of dictators only allowed one term and done) but indefinite reelection. Thankfully, he is dead or otherwise he might have remained as President until 2030. But it is not even how he was elected but rather how he ruled that makes Chávez authoritarian.

Most Americans know little of Latin American history and they tend to think of the Latin republics, if they think of them at all, as essentially the coup-prone military dictator after military dictator banana republic. In truth, only a few countries were coup prone. Bolivia leads the pack with some close 200 coups. The rest of Latin America combined does not equal that number. In some countries, coups have been incredibly rare. Colombia has had but two, its first in 1953 and its last in 1957 to oust the guy who taken power in 1953. Uruguay has had more than two but it too had only two during the entire 20th century.

Nor is the characterization that Latin dictators came exclusively from military ranks. Certainly the coups post the 1950s were military led but in most countries at various points in time civilian dictatorships arose. The most extreme if not bizarre one was the dictatorship of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, better known by his nickname of El Supremo, who ruled Paraguay from its independence in 1811 at first with a co-counsel but after 1815 until his death in 1840 singlehandedly. He could say "l'etat c'est moi" and be absolutely right. The only other full-time government employee was his secretary. Austere and with a rigid discipline, he made Paraguay a rather rich state. The same cannot be said of the despots who ruled Venezuela. It was the poorest country in South America until at least the 1920s and proved itself incapable of holding a direct popular election for the Presidency until 1948 (technically, the US has yet to do this given its arcane 18th century way of electing presidents and for the record Venezuela did elect a small number of Presidents indirectly with either a Federal Council or the Congress electing the chief of state). Chávez may not have been a democrat but he certainly was in keeping with Venezuela's authoritarian tradition. Chávez follows such dictatorial luminaries as Marco Pérez Jiménez, Juan Vicente Gómez, Cirpriano Castro, Joaquín Crespo, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, and José Antonio Paez. Rather than see Chávez as the exception, I see Chávez as the return to norm in South America's most barbaric republic. The period between 1959-1999 was but a brief blip of democracy in what has been the least democratic country on the continent apart from Haiti. Very briefly here is what make Chávez an autocrat. He rewrote the Constitution allowing himself vast powers including the power of decree. Unlike any other republic, there are no real checks on executive power. Thus Chávez could nationalize or expropriate any business and he did so with regularity. To Chávez, the rule of law was nonexistent. He was the law.

There are so many odd facts about his tenure. Elected in 1999 by a country tired of a corrupt two party system (the presidency of Luis Herrera Campins in the early 1980s marked the transition to two party kleptocracy), Chávez not only succeeding in making the country more corrupt, but did so spectacularly. Venezuela went from 75th on the Transparency International Index of Corruption to 162nd in 2012.

That the poor love him is beyond dispute. But the rest of Venezuelan society loathes him. I reject the notion that only the elite and middle classes merit the fruits of citizenship but I also reject the notion that only the poor deserve state benefits. But poor in Latin America is basically an euphemism for dark skinned. And herein lies the problem, the polarization in Venezuela isn't just along class lies, it is along racial ones. And here's what makes Venezuela different from the rest of most Latin American countries. In the colonial period, Venezuela was a slave society. A small white elite governing a large black population. In 1810 though the provinces that made up Venezuela had only about a fifth or quarter of the population that made up neighboring Colombia, Venezuela had three times the number of slaves. Compared to brutality of the slave societies in the American South, northeast Brazil, or Haiti, slavery in Spain's colonies were generally more benign with two exceptions. The first is Cuba where slavery is largely a 19th century event (Cuba was a deserted island of goats and pigs with Havana attached until 1820s) and the second is Venezuela. In each of these slave societies, it is the ratio of white overlord to black slave that seems to account for the brutality. The more slaves to whites, the greater the brutality. Chávez is a cimarrón, a descendant of black slaves who escaped to the Llanos on the other side of the Andes where the escaped married the other resistors of Spain's designs, the indigenous tribes. Chávez is the triumph of a racial revanche. And while I tend to believe that what we will see emerge in Venezuela in the near term is a hybrid of Mexico under the PRI and Cuba under the Castros, the dangers of a conflict along racial lines can not be dismissed.

Only once?

"This (2012 presidential elections, wp200) will be Venezuela's 15th set of national elections since Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1999. That is more sets of elections than took place in the 40 years prior to Hugo Chávez becoming President.It is also one of the highest number of elections held in any country in the world in that time. All have been declared free and fair including by international bodies such as the EU and Organisation of American States (OAS).In September 2012 former US President Jimmy Carter said “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” and that Hugo Chavez has always won “fairly and squarely”."

Unless you've got better election watchers than the EU, the OAS and the Carter Center, Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

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