Thursday, March 07, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #98 - Part 6

RIP: Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez has died of cancer at the age of 58.

Chavez was, of course, the president of Venezuela. He had just been elected for a fourth time in January.

He was much and often unfairly maligned in the US media, which subjected him to a process I call demonization: It's a process that usually begins with some high government official making some accusation of evilness of some sort or another, an accusation which is absorbed, repeated, and amplified by the media, until after a time everything the person does is interpreted in that light, that is, everything they do is presumed to be driven by some sort of evil impulse.

As an example of the results, after he died, a Boston "Herald" editorial called Chavez a strongman, an international thug who used his nation’s oil wealth to buy friends, and a bully who supported Hezbollah and bankrupted his country - all within the space of 300 words even if you include the space the "Herald" took to mock and deride his intended successor.

Once a leader is demonized, even the clearly beneficial things they do - in Chavez' case, that would be things like expanding education, food assistance, and health care to the poor and bringing them into the national political arena - are regarded as somehow nefarious - again, in Chavez' case, as a means to "buy" their support to increase his personal power.

(Did you ever notice how when benefits go to the poor it's to "buy" them - think Witless Romney's "47 percent" - but when benefits go to the rich it's because they are so "deserving?" Still, I suppose it does make a perverted sort of sense: In the case of the rich, they are usually the ones buying the politicians rather than the other way around.)

But getting back to Chavez, he was repeatedly accused of press censorship and of closing down the opposition press, often "the last of" the opposition press - even as there always remained an opposition press to complain of censorship and of being closed down. His government was described as "increasingly authoritarian" so many times there must have been some who thought it was an official title.

Back in the summer of 2004, I wrote that Chavez
has been repeatedly accused of authoritarianism, of being an autocrat, a murderer, even a "would-be dictator," in the words of the New York Times. The charge is not completely without merit but still over the top, especially since authoritarian rule always seems to be "increasing" but never seems to actually get to being authoritarian.
Nearly nine years later, that remains true: Chavez' "authoritarian rule" was always "arriving" without ever having arrived.

It's important to note here that it wasn't just the right wing that attacked Chavez. The liberals did it too. Chavez was the lefty they loved to hate, the one they could - and would - attack to prove that, by gosh, they weren't dirty fucking hippies. So from time to time all good liberals indulged in a little Chavez-bashing, a little demonizing, something to prove that they really are "serious" observers who haven't strayed too far from the foreign policy consensus and their disagreements, where they exist, arise more over matters of effectiveness and advisability, not from any fundamental difference in philosophy and certainly not from any questions about basic principles and absolutely not from any doubts about the total moral superiority of the US over the rest of the world and all of history.

Hugo Chavez was no demon. He was no angel, certainly, and some of his actions raised genuine civil liberties concerns and generated sharp criticism from human rights groups. So he was no angel - but he was even further from being a devil. And that he had the support of a heavy majority of Venezuelans is beyond rational argument: He won four internationally-observed elections and a recall, the latter of which was partly financed by the US - which would be illegal is some other country did that here, but "do as we say, not as we do." Plus he survived a coup in April 2002, a coup the US initially blamed on Chavez and then condemned only after it failed.

But having the support of your own populace will not save you from demonization - in fact, in his case and often enough in others it was the reason for it. Chavez upset the traditional house of cards where the poor in Venezuela were the "other," they were the dispossessed, the unimportant - the ignored. The interests first of the rich and second of the middle class professionals were the ones to be seen to. Chavez, instead, openly championed the cause of the poor who make up the majority of Venezuelans.

He certainly made mistakes, plenty of them. For one, he relied too much on an expectation of continuing high oil prices and failed to reinvest in his own domestic oil industry. So when the price of oil went down, so did the economy.

But the bigger failing - it remains to be seen if this really is a failing, that is, if this really comes to pass, which events will show one way or the other - but if it does and I fear it will, it is the basic failing, the basic philosophical failing, of not dealing with a risk that is run by any movement, especially with any movement that aims at dramatic change: the possibility of its turning, however unintentionally, into a personality cult that can't survive the symbol.

The result of that is that both leader and supporters come to equate the benefit of the leader with that of the movement as a whole, and the leader who starts saying "they need me" more often and with more emphasis than "I need them" is starting down a road that may in the longer term undermine what they set out to achieve in the first place.

Venezuela has not gotten to that point - but it is not so far from it that it can't be made out on the horizon.

Hugo Chavez needed to set about building a movement for change, for empowering the poor, for improvement in the lives of the Venezuelan people, for (even if a limited version of) democratic socialism, that could survive his departure from public life. That is something that, I fear, he did not do.

I believe that Hugo Chavez genuinely believed in his social revolution. I believe he was truly interested in giving the poor a power and a voice which they had never had before. I believe he genuinely wanted to cut poverty - in fact, it was cut roughly in half during his time in office. I believe he genuinely wanted to improve education, to feed the hungry. But to the very extent that the revolution became about him, to the very extent that there is no structure, no movement that exists independently of him and so will survive him, to that very same extent he will in the long run have failed while possibly having what follows him turn into precisely that of which his enemies accused him.

And that, especially considering what he and his movement have both achieved and survived, would be a very great shame.


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