Getting Real About Chavez

For a long time, I’ve defended Hugo Chavez. I thought that he was fighting a worthy battle against greed and corruption, against years of foreign domination and cronyism. I thought he was trying to improve the lives of poor people, while establishing a strong economy, an independent and self-respecting nation, and a vibrant democracy.

But now, after watching events unfold in the past few months, I’m ready to admit that I was mistaken.

Like many of those who lean left, I figured that Chavez’s megalomaniacal governing qualities were a bit unnerving, but not anything serious to be worried about. In retrospect, I realize that I was willing to overlook his authoritarian tendencies because of one main thing: his avowed commitment to social justice issues and his dedication to ending poverty.

Recently, however, I’ve changed my mind in a major way. Although I have tried to remain optimistic, Chavez’s actions in the past few months clearly indicate that he is set on becoming a dictator. Perhaps a dictator dedicated to the poor, but a dictator nonetheless. The evidence is abundant (though I will just list a few of the most recent examples). In late 2006, for instance, Chavez canceled the operating license for RCTV, the second-largest tv channel in Venezuela and one of the most public forums for opposition to his regime. Was it just anti-Chavez activists who called foul to this act of censorship? Not at all. Indeed, José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, referred to the incident as “clearly a case of censorship and the most grave step back in the region since [the 1990s media crackdown of Peru’s Alberto] Fujimori.”

Then, in late January of 2007, in an unbelievably bold act, Chavez passed through the Venezuelan legislature a measure that gave him the power to rule by decree. For eighteen months, he was granted the ability to make sweeping economic and social changes without the direct consent of the legislature. Most recently, as The New York Times is now reporting, Chavez has decided to unveil a plan that would get rid of presidential term limits entirely. Unfortunately, with control of all branches of government, it looks like this blatantly undemocratic effort to become ruler-for-life might actually succeed:

Willian Lara, the communications minister, said Mr. Chávez would announce the project before the National Assembly, where all 167 lawmakers support the president. Supporters of Mr. Chávez, who was re-elected last year with some 60 percent of the vote, also control the Supreme Court, the entire federal bureaucracy, public oil and infrastructure companies and every state government but two.

Meanwhile, Chavez appears to be establishing a cult of personality, not unlike other authoritarian leaders:

As Mr. Chávez, 53, settles into his ninth year in power, images of him have become impossible to avoid here. On billboards, posters and murals, he is seen hugging children, embracing old women, chanting slogans and plugging energy-saving Cuban light bulbs into sockets.

The sum of these recent developments, combined with previous measures to stack the courts and the legislature, have solidified Chavez’s rule to the point where there should no longer be any doubt about the direction in which the country is headed. Chavez is pushing for dictatorial-like powers and there seems to be little hope, at least in the near future, of re-establishing any semblance of democratic governance.

Unfortunately, many of us on the left have been silent on this issue for far too long. While we have been quick to criticize our own administration and other foreign governments (think Vladimir Putin) for undemocratic policies, there has been a tendency to overlook the authoritarian governing styles of leftist regimes like that of Venezuela. For some reason — probably because these leaders profess the dogma of economic equality and social reform — many of us on the left have defended these liberal autocrats.

But it’s time to wake up and get our priorities straight. We should not be blind to what is going on in Venezuela. We can no longer forgive Chavez’s dictatorial tendencies merely because of his avowed commitment to the country’s poor. Indeed, it is a grave mistake to overlook tyranny or authoritarianism even when it is couched in the rhetoric of liberal reform and social justice. Ultimately, while Chavez’s vision of an end to poverty and the creation of a more equitable society is an honorable and an important one, his way of achieving these goals is not. Upholding democracy is infinitely more important than any of these other aims.


  • Chris

    Unfortunately, many of us on the left have been silent on this issue for far too long.

    We have to keep our priorities straight. Perhaps when we ourselves return to a true representative government, we can start trying to help other countries achieve what we have.

    Unfortunately, our affairs are far from in order, and in light of our disastrous policies in South America that have directly led to years of authoritarian rule, perhaps we should leave well enough alone.

    We never had the moral authority to decide what types of governments other countries had or chose, and we certainly don’t have that authority now.

  • carpeicthus

    I don’t know about you, but I knew Chavez was a dirtbag right from the start. But, of course, I’m not really in The Left in any Belafonte-Sheehan sense. Chris is right, though, there are a lot of dirtbags in leadership, so you have to prioritize by proximity.

  • pacatrue

    Even the most flawed human beings still have the right, and perhaps the obligations, to make moral judgements. Of course, you have to keep in mind the dictum of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, but if you go to the opposite extreme of declaring, “I have done wrong, so I will no longer attempt to do right,” then it is not humility holding you back, but complacency and depression. All of us have done wrong. We don’t just give up because of it, but instead try to do right going forward.

  • AustinRoth

    He is also starting to show the other true colors of dictators – self-enrichment of himself and his cronies.

    I haven’t heard much of a peep here, or elsewhere for that matter, but now there are Venezuelan Ministers being caught with suitcases full of money ($800k), while smuggling them out of the country. In Venezuela, it is being called ‘Maletagate’. There are strong rumors already of offshore accounts, and Chavez’s own expensive personal tastes.

    Chavez is just another populist, leftist, Latin American dictator using rhetoric to win over the gullible Intelligentsia (and wannabes, like Chris), so that they will run defense for him, and act as unpaid apologists.

    See ‘Stalin’ for how to do it on a grand scale.

  • AustinRoth

    Oh, BTW Chris, by the standard you are putting forth here (we cannot criticize any country until we meet your lofty expectations), I assume you are doing the same in your private life.

    You are living a frugal lifestyle, donating all of your money and possessions beyond the very minimal necessities to charity, providing shelter for ‘undocumented aliens’ in your home, going downtown to help unionize the masses, etc.

    I mean, anything less would be hypocritical, and that just goes against your nature, doesn’t it?

  • Chris

    You are living a frugal lifestyle, donating all of your money and possessions beyond the very minimal necessities to charity, providing shelter for ‘undocumented aliens’ in your home, going downtown to help unionize the masses, etc.

    I’m not sure how that’s the opposite of corruption.

  • Entropy

    Chavez has a strange way of helping the poor – perhaps he’ll “help” them by making more of them. His dictatorial tendencies aside, his policies have produced a few short-term gains at great long-term cost. In short, the Venezuelan middle-class, such as it were, is in the process of being decimated while the rich will simply leave the country for friendly climes, none the worse for wear.

  • Rudi

    LOL My comrades defend Chavez and AR ignores the fact that demagogues across the spectrum in Latin America have a bad record. Maybe a Ron Paul isolationist approach in our backyard is called for. The US record with Ortega and Pinochet would call for isolation(?).

  • AustinRoth

    Rudi – I do not ‘ignore’ them. Any post that is not a novel length tome has to by default talk about a limited set.

    SA has certainly had dictators of all stripes. I was commenting in Chavez, though, and how he has accomplished it.

    You can talk about the right-wing ones when that is the current topic.

    But I thought from past posts that you in particular like to attack the ‘but others did it’ defense; yet here you trot it out.

  • AustinRoth

    Chris – no, you take the position that wealth and capitalism, and in particular Western values, are the root of all evil.

    So I would expect you to live like a good, practicing Socialist Radical, and reject material goods created on the backs of the downtrodden.

    Bet you don’t, though!

  • Rudi

    AR – You misread my comment, I was critical of my fellow Komrads for their support of Chavez. The voters of Venezuela deserve their man. Latin American is now shifting Left, in a few years they will shift back to the Right. For all our interference, the Latin Americans will do as they want, not what the WH wants. Why do you think of us as Gringos?

    Maybe the Michigan nuclear fusers can fix our problems and we can tell Hugo to fugo. One is a hero, the other is roughed up by the FBI. Good thing Little Debbie didn’t here about the Thorium perpetual energy machine.
    Bad Eagle Scout
    Good Scout

  • flyerhawk

    I think carpeicthus has it about right.

    I’ve never thought much of the guy. Just another in a long line in banana republic dictators. Sadly for Venezuela their oil will allow this guy to stay in power for quite a while.

    Too many people seem to think that because someone loosely falls on one side of the ditch that means they should either defend or attack the guy. Lefties should realize this guy is just another petty populist dictator. Righties should realize that this guy is a heck of a lot better than oft-defended by the right Pinochet.

    This guy will get a bunch of power and then sooner or later do something stupid or suffer the consequence of being a populist dictator.

  • lapdog

    I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. But I think that many are genuinely fooled by what Jeb identifies- “overlook[ing] authoritarianism when it is couched in the rhetoric of liberal reform and social justice.” It’s nothing new.

  • domajot

    A dictator is a dictator, whether Chavez’s political pretentions are right or left What does matter is his anti=US maneuvering. In that regard I agree with pacatrue:
    “All of us have done wrong. We don’t just give up because of it, but instead try to do right going forward.”

    The question remains, however, what can the US really do? Our meddling in Latin America so far has been either ineffective or has produced contrary results, Castro is still in power and still thumbing his nose at us, for example.

    So, what is the right thing to do?
    As far as I can see, doing nothing for now, while we wait for further develpments, is as good an answer as any.

  • DavidTC

    Chavez is what you get when a country allows social issues to suffer for so long while plowing money into the coffers of the rich.

    It happened in Russian on a massive scale almost 100 years ago, and now it’s happening to the place the US sucks money out of, all our ‘colony except in name’. It happened in Iran, if we’re not careful it will happen Saudi Arabia. (And, boy, will we be fucked then!) It happened in Cuba.

    If it hadn’t been for Bush, it’s possible we ourselves would have continued on the same path and in thirty years would have had a violent revolution ourself. If the Democrats aren’t any better it could still happen.

    It did happen in the US, in fact, about 230 years ago. And France, a few decades later. It happened in Germany about 70 years ago.

    When the powerful continues to control the government and bleed everyone dry, there’s only so long the power structure will stand. At some point the people will rise up in revolution. And that time is rip for a demagogue to leap into power and seize control.

    Blame the demagogue for seizing power, but don’t pretend that the demagogue is the cause of the revolution. The cause of the problems in Venezuela is quite apparently to anyone who’s even vaguely looked at the history of the place.

  • Jim Satterfield

    DavidTC beat me to it. Chavez wouldn’t have the support he has among the poor that is allowing him to get away with this **** if they hadn’t been shafted so much and so long by Venezuela’s ruling classes that thought there was nothing wrong with a wealth gap that makes ours look like a commune. These things come back to haunt you if you support too much extremism in either the political or economic realms.

  • daniel duquenal

    I must say that I am pleased to see that some of my Moderate/Liberal brethren are finally starting to see the light on Chavez. I have been diligently denouncing the authoritarian militaristic nature of the regime for years in my blog but until now only conservatives showed support, and quite often for dubious reason. But from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry I had at least the pleasure to read that Democrats in high positions knew better. Though in all fairness even KOS expressed some doubts on the man….

    Well, Jeb, welcome. Better late than never I suppose. Meanwhile for me/us in Venezuela I think it might be too late now.

  • dnovo

    I’m glad you finally “get it”. We concerned Venezuelans with the way things were before the dawn of Mr Chavez’s 5th Republic could have told you that in 1998, (no in fact, in 1992 when he made his bloody first coup attempt), but, yes, better late than never.
    However I tend to agree with Daniel as regarding it too little, too late. Its a little like figuring out that Hitler was truly a dictator bent on ruthless expansionism right after the Munich accords of 1938. Sorry if it sounds harsh but after so many years we’ve grown extremely tired and cynic at the way Mr. Chavez has been allowed to portray himself.

  • stchrisby

    I’m sorry, Hitler? Not nearly, even 1933 Hitler.

    Dictator compared to who? Pinochet? D’Aubiusson? Somaza? How many others the that the US, supported or outright installed went FAR beyond anything Chevez has done or at this point even appears to *want* to do?

    Chevez got to where he by legal means. This is the third time he’s been granted this power after giving it back as agreed twice. Maybe he provides cover for a legislature that can’t take the heat of hard decisions like making American oil companies pay what they agreed to pay.

    The middle class is disappearing in the US too. I wonder if the poor of Venzuela will be worse off or better than us in a few years.

    I’m watching too, but I’m not seeing the “great Satan” – I’m seeing a guy who is doing what it takes to stand up to the massive itimidation of the USA and try to do something right for his own country.

    He’s been given 18 months, let’s watch him and see what he does, but measure him by the same yardstick we’d measure anyone else – not by the yardstick of the Project for a New American Century.

  • Tully

    I’m surprised that anyone is surprised.

    That about covers it. Chavez has never made any real effort to conceal his intentions of leading a new pan-American Marxist revolution across the entire region. 1992, led coup attempt. Elected in 1998, expanded presidential powers immediately, began implementing state control of labor unions, seizing land for “redistribution,” “nationalizing” industry and oil production, decreeing price controls, building up the military, controlling the media, etc.