"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 8, 2012

Chavez The Good Guy

Most Americans believe that Hugo Chavez is a corrupt dictator who retains his autocratic rule through a police state, by muzzling the press, and by threat and intimidation.  He is demonized by the US foreign policy establishment because of his Socialism and worse because he is forming unholy alliances with similarly anti-democratic leaders of Latin America like those in Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador.  US diplomats hate him because he practices in-your-face anti-Americanism in circus acts of bombast and invective.

We don’t do much about it, however, because we need his oil and because he has no army or WMD to threaten us.  His turf is insignificant in geo-political terms.  Venezuela is up there with Guyana, Surinam, French Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago – not exactly a hotbed of political activity.

There is no doubt that Chavez has controlled the media – although by law political candidates are extremely limited in access to airtime, Chavez has easily skirted the law by using the Presidency and the ‘people’s need to know’.  However no one either before or after the recent election in which Chavez won by almost 10 percentage points – a thorough trouncing of the opposition candidate – has alleged fraud.  Nearly 90 percent of the electorate voted in free and fair elections, and although some may have voted differently had Capriles had more media access, the results would have likely been the same.  The barrage of ads in the US is aimed at a tiny fraction of the American electorate, the undecided; and had these ads been seriously curtailed, few of those 95 percent who made up their mind up early and conclusively, would have noticed.

The point is the Venezuelan people actually like Chavez.  While most admit certain failings, such as the rise in violent crime, they are happy that he has effected many social reforms.  In an article in the Guardian (10.7.12) Edward Ellis has told why:

No one can deny the concrete benefits that many Venezuelans have received since the leader of the nation's "Bolivarian revolution" first came to power in 1999. His government has expanded education and healthcare while slashing poverty and writing one of the world's most progressive constitutions. The economy has been good, thanks to high oil prices, and despite the failure to effectively address the question of security and violent crime, the incumbent president can boast of some solid accomplishments.

Many American ‘progressives’ have claimed him as one of their own because of these accomplishments.  Just as they still have lingering admiration for Fidel whose regime has provided universal education and health care, they claim that Venezuela is a good example of showing how well government public intervention works and how it is the key element in social progress.  What they do not accept is that this was done on borrowed time.  Oil is a natural resource for which neither Chavez nor the Venezuelan people worked.  It is considered a free resource, and there is, therefore, no need to consider the foreign and national private investment which would provide the infrastructure for more permanent economic growth. Nevertheless, oil wealth and government largesse are enough to garner significant political support.

This is not enough, says Ellis.  People really love Chavez, for he is one of them:

There is something deeper that has eluded the gaze of outside pundits who for years have portrayed Chavez as either an autocratic dictator or a petrol-rich buffoon. What Chavez is, in fact, is Venezuelan: there is no more authentic a representative of the country's character than him. He is gregarious, loquacious, intensely nationalistic, contradictory, sometimes petulant, and he displays an uncanny, chameleon-like ability to be everything to everyone.

This does not exactly speak well for either Chavez or the Venezuelan people, but it does explain the Chavez phenomenon.

Ellis goes on to state what is perhaps the most telling reason for Chavez-love:

Critics describe these traits as simple "populism", but Chavez has also done something that no political leader before him has done. Unapologetically, relentlessly, the leftist head of state has succeeded in projecting the image of an independent and sovereign Venezuela onto an international stage. In doing so, he has snapped the tradition of subservience that characterized the nation for decades. This vindication of "Venezuelan-ness" on a global scale has been one of his greatest triumphs for a population that has longed to be recognized as being "just as good" as northern nations.

This inferiority-based nationalism is not unique to Venezuela.  The radical Islamic movement in the world is at least partly due to this.  Most Muslim countries (except those with oil) are far behind the West in economic development; and all have little in the way of innovation, intellectual vitality, and artistic creativity.  Radical Islamists have raised Islam itself to a nationalist cause – “We are Muslim and therefore better than the rest of the non-Muslim world”.  Chavez has used the same strategy – “We are unapologetically Venezuelan, and it is time we were given the respect that we are due”.

Ellis recounts a conversation he had with a fellow film-maker in Caracas:

I was playing devil's advocate in criticizing the government for its paternalism and failure to truly change the country's oil rent economy; he was defending the administration on nearly all fronts.

I continued to pigheadedly press my colleague until he starkly turned to me and stated in a rather grave and unsettling tone: "I would not hesitate to sacrifice my life to defend this president. He's the only one who has done anything for the Venezuelan people."

This surprised Ellis, for it was not coming from an impoverished slum-dweller who relied on Chavez’ munificence for survival, but from a highly educated professional.  Ellis was convinced that Chavismo was something real and palpable. Ellis concludes:

While there is surely passion on the opposition side, I have yet to encounter the sort of devotion that I have in the Chavez camp. And I certainly have not met anyone who has confessed a willingness to take a bullet for Henrique Capriles.

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