Terra Incognita: What Hugo Chavez teaches us

Why did Chavez, who gave so little respect to anyone in life, deserve respect from the international community in death?

Chavez Funeral 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
Chavez Funeral 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)
The scariest thing about the late Hugo Chavez is that he existed at all. Not that he existed as a person, but that he triumphed, and not only triumphed but was loved in his country and given legitimacy by numerous other states.
To understand why this is troubling, we must look to history’s lessons. Supposedly the fall of Communism brought us the “end of history”; of the great struggle between Communism’s axiomatic “last stage” and capitalist democracy. The defeat of Communism was supposed to usher in the respectability of democracy.
For many years when Communism was popular and on the march, its version of dictatorial mass murder was considered in vogue and sexy in the West, as illustrated by the glowing reports of men such as George Bernard Shaw (he excused Stalin’s show trials as evidence of “active conspiracies”), and the lionization of Che Guevara.
Its dogma was forced upon the people in those countries that became Communist.
The hallmarks of Communism were the militaristic parade, populist slogans, propaganda, total control of the press by the state, and the murder and imprisonment of dissidents. And yet many of the West’s most popular scholars, such as Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm, were unrepentant supporters. Those who had fallen for Communism and seen its evils, such as Whitacker Chambers, believed the West, due to its self-doubt, was on the losing side.
But Communism died, and quickly. Its holdouts in North Korea and Cuba are anachronisms, like some untouched native tribe in Brazil that shoot arrows at helicopters. Those post-Communist countries that sought to hang onto their traditions, such as China and Vietnam, at best only ape Communism, for they have embraced the new world.
With the end of Communism came mass democratization. In the years when Communism was on the march, the support of democracy in some countries had the ironic affect of bringing about the collapse of democracy and the victory of Communism (just as today the support of democracy in Muslim countries has the ironic affect of producing Islamist nightmares).
In the 1990s South and Central America, parts of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe all embraced the ballot box rather than the bullet as a means of settling political rivalries.
Of course the transition was not without problems, but it occurred nonetheless.
The rise of Hugo Chavez was not supposed to happen. Here was a former coup leader and military man who behaved and looked like Benito Mussolini. He styled himself a “Bolivarian revolutionary,” an anti-American Latin caudillo, and reveled in strong-arming his enemies and accusing them of traitorous conspiracies. He easily brushed aside the political elites in Caracas and installed his family and self-styled revolutionaries in power. He reached out to Fidel Castro and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinjed to renew an anti-American alliance that seemed straight out of the 1970s.
He berated world leaders at the UN in the style of Muammar Gadaffi and Nakita Khruschef. He was adored by some leftwing intellectuals and activists in the US, such as Sean Penn, in a throwback to the days when the Left would make pilgrimages to hear Castro speak.
Chavez was a buffoon. He destroyed the free press in his country and replaced it with a “hello comandante” television show that featured stream-of-conscious “lessons from the leader.” He created a cult of personality that was more fitting to the 1930s Soviet Union than the first decade of the 21st century. In a critical mistake, the opposition boycotted elections in 2005, which allowed Chavez’s party to take control of all 169 seats of the legislature and abolish term limits in 2009. His recent election for a fourth term would have put him in power for almost two decades.
He sought unabashedly to replicate Castro’s achievement in Cuba; the dream of every dictator, to stay in power forever, surrounded by family members in key positions. Like Robert Mugabe, another 20th-century fossil still clinging to power in the 21st century, Chavez painted all his opponents as neo-colonial lackeys and abused them with curses at every opportunity.
In 2007 when he momentarily lost a referendum, he called the opposition “shit.” When an opposition politician, Antonio Ledezma, won election to mayor of Caracas in 2008, Chavez unilaterally stripped the mayor’s office of its powers and transferred them to a new “capital district” which he appointed a crony to run.
Then Chavez sent his red-shirted chavistas and police from his Interior Ministry to occupy the city hall.
This was “Bolivarian democracy”: direct action backed by the military to crush dissent and reverse any popular elections that do not go the party’s way.
In 2009 when Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni released a businessman held without trial who Chavez opposed, Chavez called for her imprisonment on national television. Justice Ministry thugs took Mrs. Lourdes away and held her in pretrial detention for a year. She was raped, cut with razor blades and cigarettes were put out on her. This is the “democracy” leftists around the world applauded. Of a man who ordered the rape and torture of a sitting judge for, as Mrs. Lourdes put it, having the “temerity to do my job,” US actor Sean Penn, for example, shamelessly said: “[Chaves is] a great hero to the majority of his people,” a champion to “poor people around the world.”
Even as he lay dying, double-speak was still coming from the presidential palace, claiming he wasn’t even sick. As happens in all regimes of this sort, the vice-president blamed an American conspiracy for poisoning the leader.
When he died, only two countries, the US and Canada, issued statements clearly disapproving of his legacy. Stephen Harper simply stated, “At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.”
The other 55 world leaders who sent delegations to the funeral lauded Chavez – even Colombia, which had often been the target of his war talk and demagoguery. Juan Santos, president of Colombia, said his death was “a great loss for Venezuela and for me personally.”
During his life Chavez repeatedly interrupted and attacked foreign presidents in public forums in an incendiary manner. In 2006, in an address to the United Nations, he strutted back and forth like Mussolini, crossed himself in a dramatic gesture and said, referring to US President George Bush, “Yesterday the devil spoke here, and it still smells of sulfur.”
At a 2007 Ibero-American summit he repeatedly interrupted the Spanish prime minister, castigating Spain as being led by a “fascist,” and “less human than snakes.”
Chavez’s microphone had to be turned off as he unceremoniously interrupted the speakers, prompting the king of Spain to say “por que no te callas?” – why don’t you just shut up? But Chavez’s bullying of foreign leaders at international events paled in comparison to his treatment of those he hated back home.
Why did Chavez, who gave so little respect to anyone in life, deserve respect from the international community in death? This story of Chavez’s success and the honor paid to him should worry anyone who believes in the values of democracy and open government. It should concern anyone who disapproves of propaganda and militarism; of nepotism, bullying, and the placement of conspiracies and simplistic hate speech before policies. The supporters of Chavez argue he combated racism against dark-skinned Venezuelans, that he improved health care and education and decreased poverty.
Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research writes “once he got control of the oil industry his government reduced poverty by half.” US Congressman Jose Serrano claimed “he was committed to empowering the powerless.” Even if all that were true, why must such programs be put in place through the neutering of dissent, and the use of the bully-pulpit to berate opponents, the hoisting of posters of the “leader” on every street corner and the glorification of the military? Can’t illiteracy be combatted without locking up judges who disagree, and urging supporters to blame “Zionism” for their troubles? One can help the poor without calling the upper class “traitors.” Those like Weisbrot and Penn were enamored of him simply because he said he was a “Social democratic.”
They were swept up in romantic notions of “revolution” and ignored the thuggish reality.
Chavez should scare us all because he illustrated that despite the obvious gains of democratic and transparent government, the old demons of the bloody 20th century are still with us. Mussolinis and Gadaffis can still rise and democracy can still die an easy death at the hands of populist presidents, and electorates that believe there are no checks on their powers. Venezuela proves how fragile democracy is and how quickly it can be dismantled.
The support Chavez received from academics, actors and other “progressives” in the West illustrates how weak the understanding of democratic values is even in bastions of democracy and individual liberties such as the US.
It illustrates that within a small segment of the radical Left there still exists the kernel of belief that to help “the poor” society must be organized along top-down dictatorial lines, where the “traitors,” “Zionists,” “devils” and “snakes” must be rounded up, beaten and raped for the “greater good.”
The fact that, even now, Chavez is being embalmed, like Lenin, shows that in 100 years of suffering at the hands of the Lenins, Stalins, Hitlers and Mugabes, perhaps the world has not learned its lessons.