Over the past decade, few world leaders have been as internationally controversial as Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez. A constant thorn in the side of George W. Bush, and seen by some on the left as a hero and trendsetter, who is the real Chavez? Is he the “wacko” dictator with a monopoly on oil, or the brilliant strategist of social reforms and savior to the poor? After speaking with Brian Nelson, author of “The Silence and the Scorpion”, available now, only one conclusion can be made: neither side is completely right or wrong; Chavez is both the miracle and the demon they proclaim him to be.
During the Bush years, Chavez was known for calling our president “the devil” and was in turn referred to as a “wacko” and a dictator. Certainly, Chavez is not crazy, and he is no dictator. His attempts to extend his term limits and influence may be a clear power grab, but they are not strictly speaking the definition of a dictator. In contrast, Bush pushed executive power to limits never before seen in America — with Obama following right behind — and until relatively recently, our leaders could be elected indefinitely. Had he not passed on, Franklin Roosevelt would easily have served a staggering sixteen years. Neither friend nor foe of the New Deal would call Roosevelt totalitarian.
The corruption in Venezuela is pointed out by critics as an ominous sign, and they are right. But when put in context, it comes across as much less severe than first thought. Nelson says that, “Venezuela was obscenely corrupt before Chávez came to power; yet, somewhat incredibly, it is even more corrupt now.” Estimates have shifted Venezuela from the fourth to the first most corrupt Latin American country over the past decade. Some of this is clearly due to Chavez. Some must be blamed on the huge influx of oil into an already corrupt system. Had anyone else taken his place, they could predictably have been just as corrupt. Of course, this is no real defense and corruption should not be tolerated even if the reasons are understandable.
Chavez’s verbal attacks on Bush and American foreign policy were globally popular and factually correct. Bush symbolized “unilateralism, interventionism, and, well, imperialism.” Of course, Obama is the same in many ways, just as Clinton was much the same before Bush. If Chavez is to be accused of being unfair, that is a true observation: not because his criticisms were wrong, but because he has refused to apply them to the current administration. Why has he not? Obama is too popular of a target, and the hope remains there that he will reverse the worst of Bush’s policies. Attacking Bush gained Chavez recognition, but haranguing Obama for the same mistakes would be political suicide.
While there is a gut reaction from many to criticize “socialist” programs, there is a clear difference between socialism and fascism that should be made clear: the fascists are happy to let the underclasses die from easily treatable problems, whereas the socialists accept that all people should be given a fair chance. Some of Chavez’s programs include providing school children with free lunches and getting accessible healthcare into the poorest neighborhoods. Giving children their daily nutritional needs — not to mention education — is not only far from extremist, it’s financially sensible. A low-cost meal now will prevent expensive medical bills down the road. Yes, people are given money they have not “earned”, but end up giving back so much more in the long run.
Anyone who saw Chavez as a threat to America was propping up a straw man. Venezuela needs America as much as we need them — oil is worthless if there are no buyers. We could single-handedly crush Venezuela by reducing our dependence on foreign oil, although I think with the reaction to the BP crisis we all know the reality of that. His push for the spread of socialism will not succeed if the other countries don’t want it, and even his ties to rebel groups like the anti-Colombian FARC pose little threat outside the region, and we could just as easily criticize Colombia for their own use of guerrilla fighters. Ultimately, that is not America’s problem.
But those on the left (Democrats, socialists, Greens, etc.) may not want to sing Chavez’s praises. As Nelson points out, there are actually two “lefts”: the liberal left and the extremist left. Chavez “is part of a more radical tradition that believes in bringing about revolution using any and all means necessary—regardless of the oppression and human rights violations that occur along the way.” While those on the left, myself included, are focused on opposing war and promoting better health care, we would never dream of throwing rights under the bus or mounting an armed revolution.
Chavez has repeatedly shown his disdain for freedom of speech and expression. While some legitimate arguments may exist for attacking the media, his crackdowns have generally been with one purpose in mind: to protect his image. The pro-Chavez outlets are little more than propaganda and the anti-Chavez ones, which he has called “fascist” are generally moderate, maybe even fair. Chavez has even criticized Michael Moore for relatively benign comments. Nelson sums this up succinctly: “When you are so far on the left that you’re attacking Michael Moore, something is seriously wrong.”
In April 2002, when a coup seemed imminent, Chavez called for “Plan Avila”, essentially a backup plan that turns the national guard on the citizens of Venezuela. While Chavez survived the coup and went on to be fairly reelected, suggesting the people forgave him, is there really a time to open fire on non-violent political protest? America recently “celebrated” the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings in Ohio and we learned firsthand that the use of force only justifies the protests. The exact death toll and casualty list in 2002 remains speculative, but even the lowest estimates are unforgivable.
And Venezuela’s economy has had the side effect of unbelievable inflation with up to thirty percent increases annually and now relies on oil for 93% of its export income. Should oil sales disappear, the whole country stands to collapse right behind it. Again though, as mentioned above, the sales seem inevitable.
The ins and odds of the Chavez presidency are multilayered and complex; to fully analyze them in a single column would be impossible. But even on the surface, the evidence is clear: the man is no saint. For every good project he has brought to Venezuela, another scandal has followed. Nepotism and corruption are commonplace. Could we argue that another person in his position would be as bad or worse? That is a possibility, but is no excuse for bad behavior. The few on the American left who cling tenaciously to Chavez must let go, just as the right — aside from crackpots like Glenn Beck — seem to have forgotten him. Chavez was a great brown hope that became a greater brown stain.
For an extensive interview between Gavin Schmitt (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Brian Nelson, see framingbusiness.net