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Callum McCormick has a very thoughtful essay on the legacy of Hugo Chavez from a leftist perspective. The upshot:

While a defeat would for Chavez would be a setback for the left and perhaps ignite a ‘carnival of reaction’ across the continent, the more fundamental questions would be perhaps be posed by a Chavez victory. If he were to win and serve a full term, he would have spent 20 years as Venezuelan President, much of that time with big legislative majorities and with the benefit of historically high oil prices (something like 80% of Venezuelan export revenue comes from oil). There is little doubt that Venezuelan society will have made progress in that period, but enough progress to justify the uncritical praise heaped on Chavez by sections of the Left?

Some were perhaps given a moment’s pause by Chavez’s fairly disgraceful attitude to events in Libya, where he parroted various infamies against the Libyan rebels and defended Gaddafi to the hilt. He seems intent on pursuing the same course in the Syrian case, recently providing the regime with a shipment of oil. While consistent anti-imperialism is to be applauded, Chavez seems incapable of reconciling this commitment with recognition of the legitimate desire for an end to authoritarianism that is causing the convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Hugo Chavez has been and remains a figurehead and an inspiration for anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists across Latin America and the world. Should he head off the latest challenge to his government from a Venezuelan opposition for which no one on the Left should feel the slightest sympathy, then it is incumbent upon those who favour socialist change in Venezuela and beyond to build up the pressure for a fundamental and irreversible transformation of Venezuelan society. While Chavez and his government have the opportunity to play a role in that transformation, its ultimate success lies in forces beyond him and his regime, in the poor and working class of Venezuela. Only their self-activity and self-emancipation can provide the change Venezuela needs.

It has long seemed to me that the major problem with Hugo Chavez is that he is full of shit. Chavez tapped into deep desires within Venezuelan society for massive social change and has provided a very small amount of that. But Chavez’s goal isn’t really to improve the life of the average Venezuelan. It’s to be the next Castro, yelling at the United States. Thus, Chavez will support any leader who thumbs his nose at the U.S., no matter how horrible. Sometimes these very public actions can have good results on the ground–paying for medical care for Central Americans while pointing out what the U.S. could do for hemispheric medical care for instance. But governance under Chavez in Venezuela has been bad. Crime has skyrocketed, jobs have not come, and the entire regime exists on the basis of exporting oil. It’s hardly easy for a developing world nation to diversify its economy, but Chavez could have been much more serious about starting new industries and providing a better life for his people.

What Hugo Chavez has never understood is that socialism is not sticking one to the United States. It’s picking up the trash, creating jobs, emancipating people from poverty and disfranchisement. There’s a foreign policy side to that. But Chavez is in this for Chavez, not the Venezuelan people.

……To be clear, I am not at all convinced Hugo Chavez really believes in socialism. I am fully convinced he believes in Chavezism. But is he actually a socialist? That’s an open question in my mind.

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  • hylen

    He got a few things right.

    • joe from Lowell

      He can pronounce the sh sound in Shibboleth.

      Whoopie.

  • Icarus Wright

    But Chavez’s goal isn’t really to improve the life of the average Venezuelan. It’s to be the next Castro, yelling at the United States.

    Bingo. I’ve largely given Chavez the benefit of the doubt simply because of the difficulty getting reliable information about him (what is/isn’t propaganda) but its become increasingly clear he’s little more than a self-righteous thug. I am disappoint.

  • Lee

    This seems essentially right. Chavez embrached socialism so he could bask in his own glory rather than because its simply a good thing. The major positive of this is that Chavez does try to seek glory by programs that generally help the Venezuelan people rather than by building monuments to himself.

    His other flaw is a Nixonian paranoia to enemies real and perceived. Like Nixon, Chavez is also prepared to abuse power to go after his perceived Tablet had a rather good article a couple of months ago about Chavez’s vendetta against Venezuela’s Jewish community. The fact that Chavez is scared about a few thousands Jews surrounded by tens of millions of non-Jewish Venezuelans speaks volumes about his paranoia. He’s also a homophobe, one of his criticisms of his straight Catholic opponent is that he is a gay Jew.

  • It’s the cult of the personality that I find so disturbing. There is far too much of this in Latin American history. What is needed instead are institutions and respect for the law by all members of society.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Not just in Latin American history. It’s been a bleak couple decades for the left internationally, and the result has often been grasping at cults of personality in lieu of workable ideological or strategic visions. Chavez is neither the worst nor the best recipient of such cultic affection (he’s certainly less odious than, e.g., Abimael Guzman, but he’s less deserving than, e.g. Subcommandante Marcos).

      There’s a whole lot to be criticized in Chavez’s record (Erik’s assessment that he’s “full of shit” captures my feelings nicely). But, more generally, cults of personality are a political dead-end even if the recipient is more deserving than Chavez. One of the nice things about OWS, whatever its limitation, is that it has at least avoided this particular trap.

      • John

        Wouldn’t someone like Juan Peron be the closer analogy to Chavez?

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          I was talking about Chavez’s standing among the international (esp. first-world) left, not about his place in Latin American political history.

      • JL

        “One of the nice things about OWS, whatever its limitation, is that it has at least avoided this particular trap.”

        And the many examples of this trap are perhaps the main reason that Occupy (of which I am part) takes such a hardline position on this.

        • If that’s a conscious decision on Occupy’s part, then my respect for you guys has gone up quite a bit.

  • It has long seemed to me that the major problem with Hugo Chavez is that he is full of shit.

    Come on, Erik. You’re better than this.

    If we want to evaluate the Chavez legacy, we have to ask how Venezuelan politics, economy and society have developed over the past two decades, and what kind of institutional legacy has — and has not — been put in place. The balance sheet has not been all positive by any means, but one’s personal dislike of Hugo Chavez doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion.

    Two good places to start for a more substantive assessment are Mark Weisbrot’s analysis for CEPR (updated here) and Marta Honecker’s recent essays in Monthly Review. The former focuses more on the economy, the latter on political institutions. Neither writer is a cheerleader by any means but I think they show clearly that there have been some really important accomplishments in venezuela, that any kind of left program for Latin America (and beyond) needs to learn from and build on.

    It’s funny to me that someone who is so good on the history of the American labor movement would have such a knee-jerk reaction to the Bolivarian movement today. Do you think that the great union leaders in American history were saints? Do you think they didn’t make serious mistakes — and that they weren’t subject to vicious personal attacks whether they made mistakes or not? Personalizing the question — making the issue whether Chavez is someone we should admire, and assuming the entire Bolivarian movement is just him — just obscures what’s really at stake. It’s like right-wingers who want to turn every discussion of the Civil Rights movements into a rehashing of King’s extramarital affairs.

    Look, I don’t know “what Chavez is really in this for,” and guess what?, neither do you. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. The Chavez government has opened up space for popular politics in Venezuela and elsewhere that otherwise would have ben (and has been at other times and places) subject to savage repression. To ignore this and focus on his personal shortcomings is childish.

    Again, you are better than this.

    • “Personalizing the question — making the issue whether Chavez is someone we should admire, and assuming the entire Bolivarian movement is just him — just obscures what’s really at stake”

      Hugo Chavez has made the movement all about him at least as much as his critics.

      • Sure, if you let Chavez define the movement, the movement is defined by Chavez. But why would you want to do that.

        Do you know anyone who’s spent time in Venezuela recently, met with members of cooperatives and village councils, etc.? I do. There’s a lot more going on there than just Chavez. And if you don’t want to make the effort to learn about it, that’s on you, not him.

        • Dave

          Nonetheless, Chavez is the front-man, and he is indeed, AFAICT, full of shit. If the good parts of the movement can survive without him, let them. If they can’t, well then they weren’t so great if they can’t manage without a blustering thug as their front-man, were they?

          • hylen

            If they can’t, well then they weren’t so great if they can’t manage without a blustering thug as their front-man, were they?

            How does that follow?

            • Dave

              How does it not follow? If you can’t have a democratic, grass-roots social mobilisation without putting a caudillo in front of it, you’re pretty shit at having a democratic, grass-roots social mobilisation.

              • DocAmazing

                Right. Who the hell needs a president? Chief executives and heads of parties are for followers.

    • Lee Hartmann

      By “opened up space” you mean “dominating all branches of government and the military” and legitimizing his armed supporters. Chavez is simply a new caudillo, with the caveat that he has funneled a lot of money to the poor. Whether this is sustainable is an entirely different question.

      It’s interesting how leftist perspectives from afar differ from those of the professional (again, not the super-rich) class.

      • Nope. I mean opened up space. If you think “Chavez is simply a new caudillo,” you don’t know much about Latin American history.

        Do you know what happens to trade unionists in Colombia? But that doesn’t seem to bother American liberals…

        • “Do you know what happens to trade unionists in Colombia? But that doesn’t seem to bother American liberals…”

          Defend Chavez if you want to but don’t undercut your own arguments by making completely ridiculous arguments that American liberals don’t care about the murder of Colombian trade unionists. If you want to define “American liberals” as the average Democratic voter, OK I guess. But for progressive people who pay attention to Latin America on even a superficial, there is at least awareness of the murder of Colombian unionists and people are disgusted by that.

          The problem with a lack of attention paid to the Colombian labor is that Americans by and large don’t care about Latin America. It’s not deeper than that and it’s certainly not some attempt to demonize the Latin American left.

          • My point is that the alternative to Chavez is not Tocquevillean democracy. Given the pressures it is under, it’s actually impressive that the Chavez government has respected the institutions of liberalism as much as it has.

            You’re right, the sneer was probably uncalled for. But on the other hand, I am old enough — barely — to remember the substantial number of American liberals who reconciled themselves to the state-sponsored terrorism of the contras — or at least felt they couldn’t take sides against it –because of various procedural shortcomings of Sandinista governance. A lot of the criticism of Venezuela seems to show a similar lack of perspective.

            • “My point is that the alternative to Chavez is not Tocquevillean democracy.”

              Maybe.

              But certainly Brazil, Argentina, and Chile have all moved significantly toward well-functioning democracies in recent years.

              And Morales has certainly helped empower everyday Bolivians in very real ways, so much so that it is coming back to haunt him.

              Chavez has not developed democratic institutions in Venezuela nearly as well as these other nations.

              • You think there would be Morales, if there hadn’t been Chavez? I don’t.

                • Maybe not, but Morales has done a better job bringing real participatory democracy to Bolivia than Chavez has to Venezuela.

                • DrDick

                  I think this is a critical point in evaluating Chavez. I agree that he is far too self aggrandizing and highly problematic in many ways. On the other hand, he has made improvements in the lives of ordinary Venezuelans and helped spark a continent wide leftist movement. He also gave a powerful voice to many complaints and concerns of Latin Americans and others in the developing world.

                  He is far from perfect and I for one could wish for a better leader of this movement. That should not, however, diminish or override what he has done.

                • hylen

                  Good point JW.

              • John

                Didn’t Venezuela have a fairly stable political democracy prior to Chavez?

                • Bill Murray

                  if you mean oligarchy rather than democracy you would be more correct

                • John

                  I mean it had a political democracy in the sense that there were free elections, a generally free press, and so forth. The political parties perhaps did not do a good job of addressing the people’s concerns (well, certainly did not by the 90s, I suppose, since Chavez was able to become so popular), and economically the country was run by a small elite, but that’s not the same thing.

                  Certainly Venezuela avoided the long periods of military rule that characterized most other Latin American states from the 60s to the 80s.

                  I understand the argument that political democracy is not the be all and end all, and that the concentrations of power in Venezuela were such that the political system was not serving people well. But that’s a different argument.

                • DocAmazing

                  If you don’t count a coup or so every decade, yes.

                • John

                  Were there coups in Venezuela in the 40 years before Chavez’s election? My understanding was that between 1958 and 1998 Venezuela was pretty politically stable, unlike the vast majority of other Latin American countries in that period. I believe that the only other major country without a military coup in that period was Mexico, which was under an effective one party dictatorship; Venezuela had multiple parties alternating in power.

                  The only attempt at a coup in Venezuela that I’m aware of is the one Chavez himself launched in 1992.

                • DocAmazing

                  I was there for one near-miss, and nearby for another. Pretty shaky in the ’80s and ’90s. Fairly oligarchical, too, which has since improved, to the distaste of the oligarchs.

              • Bill Murray

                did the oligarchs in those countries attempt a coup?

                • joe from Lowell

                  Does anyone else find it odd that people are attempting to defend Chavez from charges of illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiment by bringing up coups?

        • joe from Lowell

          Nuh-uh + Hey look over there.

        • boz

          As many trade unionists have been killed in Venezuela as in Colombia over the past three years. It’s a shame that many of the same organizations that have rightfully pushed labor rights in Colombia for so long has ignored the recent assassinations of union members and union leaders in Venezuela.

          • shah8

            The people perpetuating those murders are not backers of the government though, unless it’s by shadowy means, more shadowy than Uribe’s support of the same…

    • joe from Lowell

      assuming the entire Bolivarian movement is just him

      The Bolivarian movement is just him. There could be a broad leftist movement that isn’t focused on the person of Hugo Chavez, but the actual Bolivarian movement isn’t that broad leftist movement.

  • Lee Hartmann

    I have a lot of Venezuelan friends – middle class – who absolutely detest Chavez, not simply for his posturing, but for inserting his people everywhere regardless of qualifications. This has lead to a new group of “robolucionarios” who have gotten wealthy due to connections. Forget about his foreign policy – Chavez has undermined several competent sectors of society, and has done really nothing to develop a sustainable society that can survive the end of oil.

    • There we go. Middle class Venezuelans detest Chavez because he has put “his people,” who do not have the right social background, into positions that were formally reserved for the elite.

      I think, Erik, with a little imagination, you could imagine how similar things might have been said about the US labor movement.

      • joe from Lowell

        Compare.

        but for inserting his people everywhere regardless of qualifications.

        he has put “his people,” who do not have the right social background, into positions that were formally reserved for the elite.

        • Indeed. I’m suggesting that sometimes when people say one, they mean the other.

          • Hogan

            No, you’re suggesting that this time when Lee Hartmann said one, he meant the other.

            • John

              To give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d assume he meant that this time when Lee Hartmann’s middle class Venezuelan friends said one thing, they meant the other.

              But certainly there are real trade offs here. What does the US Labor movement have to do with a governing party filling government positions with its supporters? There are certainly potential problems with a professional civil service – the interwar German civil service, for instance, was supposedly non-political, but was so inculcated with the authoritarian ethos of the Kaiserreich that they proved much more amenable to Nazi rule than they had to Weimar democracy. At the same time, though, a civil service largely composed of political cronies of the elected leadership has its own serious problems. Certainly most stable democracies are much closer to the “professional civil service” model than to the “political crony” one – the United States is probably the most tilted towards the latter, and that’s caused some serious problems, especially when Republicans are in charge.

            • joe from Lowell

              I’d say he’s flat-out, explicitly stating that his time when Lee Hartmann said one, he meant the other.

              What he is suggesting is that whenever someone says one, they mean the other.

              This is the Republicans’ “elitist eggheads” dodge, repurposed.

              • No one ever describes their own privilege as based on anything but merit. And yet the world is full of unearned privilege.

                • joe from Lowell

                  …so therefore, there are no such things as qualifications, and any reference to them should be read as a statement about class privilege.

                  All it really takes to prevent a refinery fire is the proper ideology.

          • Let’s not put too fine a point on it: you’re putting words in someone’s mouth and assuming facts not in evidence.

            • Walt

              Is there some iron law that you have to take everyone at their word? Panhandlers must love you.

  • So you are suggesting that Chevez was wrong about the recent unpleasantness in Lybia?

  • No offense or anything but pointing to Chavez’ sometimes bizarre anti-US rants (which are often mistranslated to make them seem “wackier” than they really are) as evidence of his inability to govern strikes me as a common tactic the US always uses to delegitimize foreign leaders as mentally unstable or dangerous.

    For what it’s worth, there have been many favorable indicators such as a massive decrease in poverty as well as a dramatic increase in domestic food production. These advancements are under-reported by the US media, which has always had a particular vendetta against Chavez and have chosen to focus on his bombastic style and inflammatory words rather than his deeds and policies.

    People can deride his “cult of personality” all they want but the fact of the matter is that he was democratically elected and is supported by a clear majority of Venezuelans. I’m tired of liberals repeating right-wing lines about revolutionaries because they have the same flaws most leaders have.

    • John

      I’d say that revolutionaries have their own special flaws, and that those particular flaws are ones that are very alien to the mainstream of American politics, and to liberalism in particular.

      Revolutionary leaders tend to accumulate power in their own hands, to built up cults of personality around themselves, to demonize their opposition and, sometimes, to delegitimize the very concept of opposition, and so forth.

      All of these things are rather alien to American democratic traditions – although the modern day Republican Party seems to be moving in the tradition of many of them.

      Maybe such tactics are sometimes necessary to affect change. But don’t be surprised that when most Americans look at Chavez they are repelled. And the fact that Morales arouses very little of the controversy that Chavez does suggests that it is Chavez’s personal foibles, rather than his leftism, that arouse most of the distaste for him. But who knows?

    • Yup.

      Useful information when considering the record of the Chavez governmnet: GDP growth (highest in Venezuelan history), the non-oil share of the economy (growing relative to the oil share), child povery (falling), literacy (rising), unemployment (down), fixed capital formation (up), and so on. Not useful information: Chavez’s speeches about the United States.

      Erik, you write that “the jobs have not come,” but you are wrong. Venezuelan unemployment has fallen by half in the past decade. You also write that Venezuela has failed to diversify away from oil, and again you are wrong. The oil share of the economy declined in every year but one of the past decade, usually by rather large margins.

      I suggest you spend less time trying to look into Chavez’s heart, and more time trying to learn about Venezuela’s economy.

      • BradP

        Useful information when considering the record of the Chavez governmnet: GDP growth (highest in Venezuelan history),

        He took over in the midst of a crisis brought on by dropping oil prices in the 80s and 90s and has since enjoyed ridiculous increases in oil revenues.

        the non-oil share of the economy (growing relative to the oil share),

        That’s due to a drop in oil production, not from diversification.

        http://www.eluniversal.com/2011/08/30/venezuelas-oil-gdp-thins-out.shtml

        Erik, you write that “the jobs have not come,” but you are wrong. Venezuelan unemployment has fallen by half in the past decade.

        At 30% inflation, that isn’t exactly stellar.

        • DocAmazing

          Beats hell out of his predecessors.

    • Meanwhile inflation, which harshly impact the poor, is running at an annual rate of 25.6% and the nurder rate per 100,000 is one of the highest in the hemisphere.

      • Walt

        Inflation harshly impacts the poor? Poor bond traders, maybe.

        • joe from Lowell

          What. The. Hell?

          You really don’t understand how it harms people with very little money when the things they need to live become much more expensive?

          • John

            Usually wages are going up too, so the price of things isn’t that big a problem for workingpeople. But it’s terrible for anyone on a fixed income. It’s also generally awful for economic stability. And it’s certainly not bond traders who are affected. Venezuelan elites hold their assets in dollars, not bolivars – inflation doesn’t hurt them at all. It primarily hurts middle class people and people on fixed incomes.

            • joe from Lowell

              Usually wages are going up too, so the price of things isn’t that big a problem for workingpeople.

              And even in such a case, the run-up is never even or smooth, and there are always lags and friction.

              • John

                Oh, certainly. But the measures required to stop inflation are, at least in the short term, almost always more economically painful for ordinary working people than continuing the inflation.

                • Actually Brazil has had inflation under control for some time now and managed to accomplish this through smart monetary policy.

                • John

                  Having inflation under control is great. Getting inflation under control is painful.

                • And Brazil did it in a fashion that did not crush the poor.

          • Well, to give him the benefit of the doubt, in the U.S. centric context of inflation running below target where, say, increasing expectations to 4-5% to catch up would indeed benefit the poor at the expense of creditors and the financial industry. But obviously, massive inflation very much hurts the poor.

        • Hogan

          Are wages and pensions going up 25.6% a year?

        • That comment is so blithely ignorant of basic economics, that it hardly merits any more response than this.

          In the 1980’s when Brazil was in hyperinflation mode, the well-to-do used credit cards for pretty much every purchase possible. Accordingly, when the bill came they saved money as the cash price had risen significantly.

        • Murc

          Inflation harshly impacts the poor? Poor bond traders, maybe.

          Speaking as someone who firmly believes this country could do with a few years at 5-7% inflation, you are being remarkably cavalier about this. Especially since Erik just had a post up about a major labor upheaval that was caused by an oligarch attempting to asymmetrically distribute the effects of inflation downward to his workers while avoiding them himself.

        • Warren Terra

          Late to the party, but this is insane. Almost by definition, someone whose job is playing the markets and who has the money to do so is better off in a high inflation situation than is someone living paycheck to paycheck, and seeing their paycheck constantly lagging the price increases in the shops. Not to mention the horrors high inflation offer to those between jobs and scraping by on their savings. The whole point of trading on the markets is to find ways to hedge and even profit despite economic troubles and inflation.

      • Crime is a serious issue, definitely. (An older leftist of my acquaintance says the real problem with Chavez is that he hasn’t just declared that violent criminals will go to the firing squad, the way a real revolutionary would.) Inflation in the 25% range is not really costly, though if it went significantly higher that could be a bad.

        There are real problems in Venezuela, don’t get me wrong, and real criticisms to be made of the Chavez government. This post just didn’t make them.

    • joe from Lowell

      Let’s play mad libs.

      No offense or anything but pointing to _____________ sometimes bizarre anti-_______ rants…as evidence of his inability to govern strikes me as a common tactic ______________ always uses to delegitimize ____________ leaders as mentally unstable or dangerous.

      Santorum’s….woman….liberals…..conservative.

      James Inhofe’s…..scientist…..environmentalists…Christian.

      The important question here is whether the criticism of Chavez is correct, not whether it reminds you of something.

      • Walt

        What a useful comment, joe, one that ignores 2/3s of Andrew’s comment. What an excellent contribution to the discourse on this comment section.

        • joe from Lowell

          I’m sorry the meaning went over your head, but I trust its intended audience isn’t so baffled.

      • DocAmazing

        Arne Duncan’s…union…education “reformers”…labor

    • Hogan

      pointing to Chavez’ sometimes bizarre anti-US rants (which are often mistranslated to make them seem “wackier” than they really are) as evidence of his inability to govern strikes me as a common tactic the US always uses to delegitimize foreign leaders as mentally unstable or dangerous.

      Yes, but I don’t think anyone here was doing that. McCormick mentions the unfortunate tendency Chavez shares with the WWP/ANSWER coalition of identifying any professed enemy of the US as an ally and hero in the common struggle. Whatever your opinion of the Kosovo intervention, Milosevic shouldn’t be anyone’s definition of a Good Guy.

    • BradP

      No offense or anything but pointing to Chavez’ sometimes bizarre anti-US rants (which are often mistranslated to make them seem “wackier” than they really are) as evidence of his inability to govern strikes me as a common tactic the US always uses to delegitimize foreign leaders as mentally unstable or dangerous.

      You completely missed the point. Loomis is not saying that Chavez is “mentally unstable or dangerous”, he is saying that too much of Chavez’s actions have been self-serving.

      To me his “sometimes bizarre anti-US rants” come off as similar to Kim Jong-Il “Dear Leader” propoganda.

      NOTE: There is no comparison at this point between Venezuela and North Korea. But given a generation and a shock to oil revenue, it could fall off.

  • Asteele

    I don’t have enough knowledge of venezuela to have an opinion here, but I will note that when discussing our leaders we talk about things like thier limited power, party politics, actual structure of governance, public opinion , and the opposition. Yet when we talk about their leaders all of that goes out the window, and the president is some sort of godhead responsible for all policy outcomes.

    • elm

      I don’t know enough about Venezuela to comment on the particular case, but U.S. Presidents are notoriously constrained by the institutions relative to executives in other countries. There is no inherent hypocrisy in saying Obama has more limited responsibility for policy outcomes in the U.S. than, say, Cameron does for outcomes in Britain. While no leader, not even Stalin, rules unconstrained, some leaders are less constrained than others.

  • shah8

    Put simply, Chavez is a peronist phenomenon. They happen when the previous democracy is obviously failed. They aren’t *nice* people or *nice* phenomenons. They just happen because they have to.

    By the standards of other populist military dictators, Chavez is practically an angel, for one reason only–he didn’t start wars. As for civil society, he’s not especially worse than someone like Kemal Attaturk.

    The odd thing in this thread though, is the lack of consideration of what the alternatives are. The opposition are effectively Bourbons–that’s why Chavez can mostly win his elections despite his many serious flaws. There was no more a democratic tradition in Venezuela than there is in Colombia, and if Chavez and his backers fall, the restoration is almost certainly going to be bloody. Tactics and strategy, people. Complaining about Chavez’ authoritarian impulses masks the fact that, however oppressive the media environment is, there is actual space for organization and opposition in Venezuela in a way that isn’t true of Colombia, or even Mexico, in some ways. Other ways to be productive, you know…

    • Exactly.

    • DrDick

      True. It was the opposition which staged (failed) military coups, not Chavez. I am not terribly fond of him personally (and it does not matter if I am), he has done a lot of good and the alternatives could have (and likely would have) been much worse.

      • AuRevoirGopher

        Chavez, career military man, tried to stage a coup in 1992.

      • joe from Lowell

        It was the opposition which staged (failed) military coups, not Chavez.

        Wait…what?

        • DocAmazing

          First sentence at your link:

          The Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002 was a failed coup d’état on 11 April 2002 that saw President Hugo Chávez ousted from office for 47 hours, being restored by a combination of military force and mass demonstration of popular support.

          That would be the opposition staging failed coups, yes.

      • John

        The opposition and Chavez are both guilty (at different times, certainly) of staging (failed) military coups.

    • mpowell

      Well the alternatives may be no better, but if the best Chavez can do is say: “well it’s either my flawed reign or a bloody restoration”, I don’t see where the space for democracy has opened up. I’m not in a position to know one way or the other, but it seems like on the political level either Chavez has improved the chances for democratic outcomes after his career is over or he hasn’t. Talking about open space at the moment seems pretty irrelevant to me.

    • Dave

      “They happen when the previous democracy is obviously failed. They aren’t *nice* people or *nice* phenomenons. They just happen because they have to.”

      Like how Washington had to organise a military coup after the failure of the Articles of Confederation, and ruled as President-for-Life from his fortified compound at Mount Vernon, while the remains of Thomas Jefferson swung in a gibbet a few miles down the road…

      • John

        The reason that Washington is extraordinary (and almost certainly underrated as a historical figure) is because he didn’t follow what is, in fact, a very, very common path.

        • He and Juan Carlos I have my undying respect.

    • joe from Lowell

      They happen when the previous democracy is obviously failed. They aren’t *nice* people or *nice* phenomenons. They just happen because they have to.

      People at Reason’s blog used to write things like this about Pinochet.

      How’s this for an alternative: the Chavezistas are chastened by an electoral loss and develop a healthier respect for democratic norms, political liberalism, and good government in an effort to make themselves more appealing to the electorate.

      • shah8

        You’re assuming that the Chavistas would be allowed to lick wounds, figure out a more attractive agenda, and compete for the next election.

        One doesn’t have to be making comparisons to Pinochet, who came into power in a fundamentally unsavoury manner, and kept power far more viciously than Chavez.

        Grasping at straws, here.

      • DocAmazing

        How’s this for an alternative: the Chavezistas are chastened by an electoral loss and develop a healthier respect for democratic norms, political liberalism, and good government in an effort to make themselves more appealing to the electorate. end up in prison for long terms as enemies of the state on a variety of charges, trumped-up and otherwise.

        You’re asking a lot out of oligarchs.

      • Charrua

        Well, for once, Chavez DID win elections, unlike Pinochet, right? He didn”t round up political opponents into a soccer stadium to shoot them, or had women prisoners raped by dogs, either. Let’s not compare them.
        The problem with your alternative is that the sociopolitical polarization might shortcircuit any learning process.
        If you lose, and your opponent proceeds to confirm everything you knew and feared about them, you don’t become more moderate, right?
        The key is an opposition movement capable of defeating Chavez but at the same time to adopt many of Chavez’s policies. To keep with the Peronist example, your scenario needs an Alfonsin.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    Uncle Charlie was right, “Men make their own history, but they don’t make it as they please.”

    Gosh, I get tired of ” hasn’t lived up to his/her promise! And, besides, there are those character flaws!” threads on the internet.

    The Bolivarian revolution–and it is one–didn’t take place in a gold fish bowl. It took place in an actual country and has been constrained by an actual political culture, an actual economic situation, and actual opposition. Given the cards dealt him, Chavez has been surprisingly restrained and pretty successful on a policy basis. No doubt Chavez could have done more on the political front, but remember his opponents. Self doubt, beloved of all progressives, is an invitation to his enemies.

    So, short Tracy: Chavez has done more good and a good deal less harm then we have any right to expect. He isn’t a saint, but your transformational politicians seldom are.

  • Steve S.

    It has long seemed to me that the major problem with Hugo Chavez is that he is full of shit.

    I’m not sure this statement conveys any information, as this ought to be the default assumption about any politician anywhere. In fact, one would be on firm ground saying the following:

    It has long seemed to me that the major problem with Barack Obama is that he is full of shit. Obama tapped into deep desires within American society for massive social change and has provided a very small amount of that. But Obama’s goal isn’t really to improve the life of the average American. It’s to be the next Reagan, seen as transforming the United States.

    Whatever faults Chavez possesses strike me as being the same ones that are practically the defining attributes of politicians in a representative democracy. Oddly, though, we never seem to notice them unless they are manifested in the opposition party or Hugo Chavez or Dennis Kucinich.

    the uncritical praise heaped on Chavez by sections of the Left

    I don’t know who these unnamed leftists are, not anybody I hang out with, but the elected leader of another country is a fact on the ground that we should be dealing with openly and honestly. The rest of it, whether it’s unnamed leftists pinning hopes and aspirations on him as an individual, or the elite consensus that he is to be held to a much higher standard of conduct than other world leaders simply because he is not an obedient client, is all nonsense.

  • gmack

    I don’t know who these unnamed leftists are

    I don’t follow this stuff too closely, but I remember Slavoj Zizek has pretty much heaped uncritical praise on Chavez. I think it was in In Defense of Lost Causes, but it might have been in one of the various articles I slogged through for reasons I can no longer remember (I’m not a Zizek fan, though his opinion on Chavez isn’t the reason why).

    • Murc

      Johann Hari was all a’flutter for Chavez to, although the second that Chavez started turning all weird and freaky he suddenly stopped writing about him. I think he counts as a semi-prominent leftist.

      Although Hari actually put his money where his mouth is; he went to Venezuela on his own recognizance and spent six weeks in the slums conducting interviews and investigations about what the people there thought about Chavez and the impact he was having on the country.

      • Daragh McDowell

        Uhhh, don’t know if word has reached the states yet Murc, but Johann Hari’s credibility has taken, shall we sa, a wee dent.

  • JoyfulA

    I’m a fan of Chavez because he’s provided heating oil to the U.S. poor as the U.S. government cut LIHEAP again and again.

    • wengler

      Don’t you know that helping poor people stay warm is just a shameful propaganda ploy?

      The sort of ploy that Republicans are strong enough to resist. God Bless ’em.

  • wengler

    If there is one thing that Chavez does best, it is to provoke strong reactions.

    I think his biggest problem is the lack of a political structure that will survive past his retirement or death. Chavez has tried to re-wire his country and turn it away from the US orbit. If he is gone tomorrow, those contracts for Russian jets and arms will be torn up. All those poverty programs will be reverted back to the oligarchs and ‘law and order’ will be trumpeted in the US as a new dawn for Venezuela.

    If anything though, the ability of Chavez to stay on in a place that has cleaner voting than the US is a testament to the diminished US influence in South America.

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