When I said this post would be “the last post” on the matter, I meant posts written by myself. 🙂 Alexander Mercouris’ was too good to pass up, so it is reprinted here:
Any discussion of Chavez must explain why he was (to his detractors) such a terrible man. He was a terrible man because he did a terrible thing. This terrible thing was to distribute Venezuela’s oil wealth to the majority of its people by funding ambitious health, education and social security programmes.
To understand why doing this was so terrible one must understand something about the historic situation not just in Venezuela but throughout Latin America (Costa Rica being the exception). Briefly, political and social power in Latin America since before independence from Spain has been concentrated in a small group of wealthy families who conduct bitter and even violent political feuds with each other using labels such as “Liberal” and “Conservative” but who unite when faced by a challenge to their power. This oligarchy sustains itself through the support of a middle class that sees its social and economic interests as bound up with those of the oligarchy. Concepts of a wider social contract underpinned by shared patriotism and by a sense of social responsibility do not exist. The mass of the population are excluded and typecast as lazy, shiftless, dishonest and violent. This justifies denying them a share in the country’s economic profits, which supposedly neither belong to them or are deserved by them, and which makes any attempt to share these economic profits with them a theft from those to whom these profits supposedly actually belong. All this is underpinned by an ugly strain of racism with the middle class and the oligarchy priding themselves on their whiteness whilst often concealing their mixed origin whilst emphasising or exaggerating the colour of the poor.
The result is that governments in Latin America have historically failed to provide even the most basic services at even a remotely satisfactory level. The only institutions in Latin American that have historically been reasonably funded have been the very highest echelons of the state bureaucracy and the judiciary (which is usually recruited directly from the oligarchy) and the army and police whose main function is not to defend the nation from foreign aggression to keep the poor in order.
In such a system requiring the oligarchy and the middle class to pay taxes to fund say a good system of universal secondary education from which the poor might benefit is an idea so outrageous that it is guaranteed to provoke passionate and often violent anger and resistance. Americans, Europeans, East Asians and indeed Russians find all this very difficult to understand. As a Greek I am better able to understand it not only because it resembles the historic situation in my own society but because a section of my family emigrated to Argentina where they are today members of what was once the country’s oligarchy.
Not surprisingly in a Continent where basic education and health care for the bulk of the population was scarcely provided (though the means to do so was always there) economic development has been disappointing to say the least. However since this is a system that is deeply embedded and which is sustained by often extreme violence all previous attempts to change it have been largely unsuccessful with reformers likely to end up either in exile or dead. I am not going to discuss the role of the US in sustaining this system since it is so well known. I would say that I do think people who blame the US for Latin America’s problems overlook the many internal reasons why Latin American societies have historically been as dysfunctional as they are.
For Chavez to redistribute the country’s oil wealth to the poor instead of doling it out to the rich and the middle class – who have an absolute belief in their entitlement to it – was outrageous enough. What made it made more outrageous still is that he got away with it. Over the time he was President he saw off every challenge the oligarchy and its American friends could throw at him. This included the whole bag of tricks: media campaigns, middle class demonstrations with all the usual colourful paraphernalia (banging kettles etc), economic destabilisation (eg. the 2003 oil workers’ strike), attempted coups (in 2002) and endless constitutional “challenges” and legal and electoral subterfuges rubber stamped by a predictably pro oligarch judiciary.
Chavez’s success in seeing off these challenges was bad enough but what was perfectly monstrous and completely unforgiveable both to his domestic detractors and even more so to their foreign patrons is that he saw off all these challenges whilst remaining a democrat. At no point, even in the face of the most extreme provocations when he would have been fully justified to do so, did he proclaim martial law, round up and gaol his opponents (let alone exile or murder them), impose censorship, ban opposition newspapers and parties (though he had cause enough) or set up a secret police. The result was that he not only deprived his enemies of the single greatest and most convincing propaganda instrument in their arsenal, but he also deprived them of the excuse they needed to blockade or embargo his country, seize its assets and foment armed resistance to his government as a possible prelude to armed intervention and externally imposed regime change.
To see how frustrated Chavez’s opponents are with his survival in office as a democrat just consider the bizarre contortions their media organs engage in to prove that despite holding and repeatedly winning internationally recognised free elections Chavez was a dictator after all. Thus ludicrous claims of Chavez being a “democratic autocrat” and the like, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, which whatever traction they may have in the west with the prejudiced and the credulous, in Venezuela itself have no traction at all.
Chavez’s greatest victory is that he died in office as President and as a democrat having seen off all challenges whilst persisting with his policies against all the odds. By doing so he has shown to the people not just of Venezuela but of all Latin America that it is possible to take on the oligarchy and the US and their middle class supporters and win without giving up on democracy. This is a momentous achievement, never achieved by anyone else before, which will not be forgotten. Whatever happens in Venezuela now, even if there is a rollback, Chavez will cast a long shadow and his example will remain an inspiration to millions. Far from being a dictator or a despot he was Latin America’s greatest and most important democratic politician since Bolivar.
I would just finish with a few further points:
1. The Economist in its article on the death of Chavez has managed to surpass even itself in its lying and mendacity.
Note specifically the way the Economist describes the 2002 coup attempt
… But he (Chavez) ruled by confrontation and decree rather than by consensus. That triggered severe political unrest. The tensions came to a head on April 11th 2002, when hundreds of thousands marched on the presidential palace to demand Mr. Chavez’s resignation: 19 people died, many killed by snipers who were never identified. When the army refused his order to use force to suppress the protests, the president surrendered his office; his most senior general told the nation he had resigned. But after a conservative business leader proclaimed himself president on April 12 and declared the constitution abolished, the army switched sides again and restored Mr. Chavez to power.
These weasel words to describe a coup planned months in advance fill one with disgust. Chavez never ordered the army “to suppress the protests” (instead he tried to go on television to appeal for calm but his broadcast was blocked), the army never refused to carry out his order “to suppress the protests” since he never gave such an order in the first place, he was in no way responsible for the killing of the 19 demonstrators (some of whom were his supporters), the identity of their killers has never been firmly established but the most likely theory is that it was a provocation planned in advance and carried out by the Caracas police who supported the coup, Chavez never “surrendered office” (whatever that means) or resigned (no written resignation document was ever produced) though this was falsely claimed at the time by the coup plotters and was falsely reported by Venezuelan television and radio (which supported the coup), the army did not “change sides” and “restore” Chavez to power, the army split into pro and anti Chavez factions but the decisive factor in defeating the coup and in bringing Chavez back to power was the massive popular mobilisation in his support by the people of Caracas when they heard over Cuban radio and television (Venezuela radio and television refusing to broadcast it) confirmation from Chavez that he had not resigned.
Reading comments like this clarifies who the true democrats are. The Economist says it champions democracy but calls Chavez an “autocrat”, though he always governed constitutionally and democratically, and falsely claims he ordered his army to fire on peaceful protesters, which he never did. At the same time it repeats the lies of those who sought undemocratically and unconstitutionally to overthrow him and to establish a dictatorship. Here is one instance when the mask has well and truly dropped. Given a choice between a left wing democrat and right wing would be dictators the Economist supports the right wing would be dictators and lies on their behalf.
2. It has become an axiom in sections of the western media that Chavez mismanaged Venezuela’s economy, which supposedly is teetering on the brink of collapse or hyperinflation or both. The facts (discussed in your article) do not bear out these claims. No one would claim of Chavez that he was much of an administrator but his handling of the economy though hardly brilliant was perfectly creditable and to call Venezuela a basket case (as some do) is nonsense.
The point critics of Chavez ignore is that no one else in Venezuelan history has done better. Venezuela’s economy (like the economies of practically all Latin American countries) has been badly managed for most of its existence as an independent country, which is why when Chavez came to power despite its enormous oil wealth it was as poor as it was. By comparison with what came before him Chavez has done well. Many of the people in Venezuela who criticise Chavez for his supposedly poor economic management and alleged squandering of the proceeds of the oil boom are of course the same people who were responsible for Venezuela’s earlier disastrous economic mismanagement and for the squandering of the proceeds of the previous oil boom. To the extent that Chavez invested some of Venezuela’s oil money in providing poor Venezuelans with educational opportunities they might not otherwise have had rather than invest it to build skyscrapers, he has laid a better foundation for Venezuela’s economic future than did his predecessors, who did as it happens invest the money in building skyscrapers (Caracas has plenty left over from that time).
For what it’s worth and contrary to the criticism that tends to be made of him I would say that part of the reason for Chavez’s political success was precisely the modesty and realism of his economic ambitions. He never had any flights of fancy about turning Venezuela into an industrial superpower or world economic powerhouse. His interest was always far more on his social programmes with which he sought to help the poor. The result was that he never succumbed to the disastrous hyperexpansionary policies and economic megalomania of (say) Argentina under Peron, Chile under Allende or Brazil in the 1950s (“twenty years in four”) and during the “Brazilian miracle” of the 1970s.
3. It is another axiom of certain sections of the western media that other Latin American countries have done better or as well in recent years in achieving economic growth and in reducing poverty as did Venezuela under Chavez. To the extent that this is true it completely ignores the fact that the governments in the rest of Latin America that did these things did them in Chavez’s shadow and following his example. This fact is well understood in Latin America itself and has been pointed out repeatedly by say Lula of Brazil even if it is ignored in the west where it is not convenient. If Chavez had not existed or had failed, the turnaround in the rest of Latin America would not have happened. The comparison between what was achieved in Venezuela and what was achieved elsewhere in Latin America is therefore a false one since the one would not have happened without the other.
4. One of the things that has united western opinion against Chavez was his constant use of the “S” word – “socialism”- at a time when “socialism” was supposed to have been discredited and defeated. However Chavez was never a “socialist” in the way that this might have been understood in say the USSR in the 1960s. By his own admission he was no Marxist. He never ran a planned economy or aspired to do so and it seems he never considered the sort of sweeping nationalisations that happened in some other places. It makes far more sense to understand Chavez first and foremost as a democratic politician than as a “socialist” one. As a democratic politician facing constant challenges from an anti democratic opposition Chavez could only survive by keeping his lower class political base continuously mobilised. This explains some of his more eccentric personal habits (intended to connect with his base and to project him as someone larger than life), his anti imperialist rhetoric and his friendship with Castro who together with Che Guevara is an almost talismanic figure in Latin America especially amongst the young and poor (see for example the picture of Guevara stencilled on the main building of the university campus in Bogota in Columbia). It was this need to keep his lower class base mobilised that was also what was largely behind his constant invocations to “socialism”. In Latin America (and many other places) “socialism” is simply political shorthand for policies that favour the poor. This is not to say that Chavez’s “socialism” was insincere. However Chavez was no theorist or ideologue and one gets the sense that for him most of the time “socialism” was simply the word he used to describe whatever it was that any particular point in time he was doing. Keeping his political base continuously mobilised required continuous activity and concentration and must have taken an immense physical and emotional toll and almost certainly contributed to Chavez’s early death.