Hugo Chavez: Demonized and Idolized

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been greeted with the expected polarized commentary. Chavez was a man both vilified and idolized outside and, to some extent at least for a while, inside Venezuela. It’s worth taking a look at the man now.

Chavez was a populist, socialist leader who wasted little time alienating both the United States and the Venezuelan upper class after he took office. Chavez became a global

The Late Hugo Chavez

The Late Hugo Chavez

hero for the left, and with good reason. He didn’t just promise to help the poor, he took action. He spent Venezuela’s revenue on education and health care. He pulled the country away from US influence. On the local level, Chavez set up groups – the Bolivarian Circles and Communal Councils – that were decentralized community boards of sorts that had real influence on local issues, a hallmark of participatory democracy that is very significant and rarely seen. And through nationalization of oil, agriculture and other business, Chavez both alienated major investors and substantially grew Venezuela’s GDP, at least for a while.

But while Chavez stuck to his guns when international investment plummeted, he, like most leftist leaders before him, was unable to figure out a way to contend with this. The US isolated Venezuela in the wake of his program of nationalizing the oil and other major industries in the country, costing US investors a lot of money. And Chavez welcomed that isolation; it allowed him to lead the fight against US imperialism, and he surely reveled in the role. And, while Chavez has kept the economy steady in recent years, it has been a patchwork project.

In his later years, Chavez followed an all too familiar pattern, vesting more and more power in the executive. Of course, after the failed coup attempt in 2002, and the ongoing efforts to destabilize his regime, there were real reasons for this. That’s the Castro argument, and the effects were the same. Chavez became more repressive, even earning some opprobrium from the left a few years back after he imprisoned a judge because he issued a ruling Chavez (and many Venezuelans) disagreed with.

And in the international arena, while Chavez’s anti-Americanism held obvious appeal, it led him to some very troubling alliances. Support for Iran’s repressive regime, for Moammar Qadaffi and for the Assad regime in Syria (and opposition to the popular revolts against each) cannot be justified by anti-imperialism, or by anything else. Palestinians appreciated Chavez’s support, and well they should; Venezuela recognized the State of Palestine in 2009, repeatedly stated support for the Palestinian cause and broke off relations with Israel in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. But accusing Israel of genocide is counter-productive. The occupation, dispossession and denial of fundamental human rights of Palestinians is bad enough; there’s no need to feed pro-Likud propagandists by saying Israel is doing something that awful when it’s not happening.

Chavez’s methods often amounted to very little. He blamed the US for the 2002 coup attempt and, while I certainly find the accusation credible and agree the coup was likely supported by the CIA, the supporting evidence isn’t there and was never presented by Chavez for anything more than the now accepted fact that the CIA knew of the coup attempt before it happened. Calling George W. Bush “the devil” at the UN won some points with many (I certainly found it entertaining), but it didn’t really advance any cause.

And his anti-Israel rhetoric certainly did help fuel a rise in anti-Semitism in Venezuela, where the Jewish community was already going to be vulnerable as having been, in large measure, part of the old elite. Though Chavez never evidenced any anti-Semitism, he also did nothing to ensure that his anti-Israel rhetoric wouldn’t fan hostility toward Jews. This was, of course, used by Chavez’s international detractors; equating anti-Israel with anti-Jewish and having rising problems for Venezuelan Jews as evidence was a great boon for the propaganda campaign about the bogus “new Anti-Semitism.” Chavez didn’t grasp this any more than he understood that many people were not going to differentiate between Israel and Jews on their own.

In the last analysis, Chavez did an awful lot of good for Venezuela. The US-inspired demonization of his regime generally misses the mark. But Chavez had serious flaws, most of which were eagerly exploited by his detractors. His ideals and aims were sound, but he was unable to avoid abuses of power, including serious human rights violations, and he was unable to find a way to keep food prices reasonable (among other economic issues) when he acted in his country’s interests and outside of those of the US and the global power structure.

I fully expect Chavez’s detractors to make his rule even more of a caricature and even more detached from the good he did now that he’s dead. But I do hope his supporters, after a time, can step back and take a more objective view of Chavez. He did a lot of things right, and we can learn from that. But we can learn even more from his failures. There are precious few left-wing governments in the world, and the tendency isn’t going in that direction. If we can start figuring out how to contend with some of the issues that plagued Hugo Chavez, we might have a stronger case to mobilize people and actually try to make things work in the egalitarian fashion most of us envision.