A supporter of Hugo Chavez holds up a picture of him during the inauguration of the National Assembly in Caracas January 5, 2013. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
I first met Hugo Chávez in New York City in September 2006, just after his infamous appearance on the floor of the UN General Assembly, where he called George W. Bush the devil. “Yesterday, the devil came here,” he said. “Right here…. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.” Then he made the sign of the cross, kissed his hand, winked at the audience and looked up. It was vintage Chávez, an outrageous remark leavened with just the right touch of detail (the lingering sulfur!) to make it something more than bombast, cutting through the soporific nostrums of diplomatese and drawing fire away from Iran, which was in the cross-hairs at that meeting.
The press, of course, went into high dudgeon, and not just for the obvious reason that it’s one thing for opponents in the Middle East to call the United States the Great Satan, but another for the leader of a Latin American country to single out its president as Beelzebub—on US soil, no less.
I think what really rankled was that Chávez was claiming a privilege that had long belonged to the United States: the right to paint its adversaries not as rational actors but as existential evil. Latin American populists, from Argentina’s Juan Perón to, most recently, Chávez himself, have long served as characters in a story the United States tells about itself, reaffirming the maturity of its electorate and the moderation of its political culture. When human rights organizations criticized Chávez’s government, they focused on press freedoms and the concentration of power in the executive branch—issues hardly unique to Venezuela. Under Chávez, however, the country has never experienced anything close to the widespread violent repression found in Colombia, Honduras or other countries. And yet it’s not just the right in this country who regularly compared Chávez to the worst mass murderers and dictators in history. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in an essay a few years back celebrating the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, fretted about enjoying the fruits of Venezuela’s much-lauded, government-funded system of music education: “Stalin, too, was a great believer in music for the people.”
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Hugo Chávez was the second of seven children, born in 1954 in the rural village of Sabaneta, in the grassland state of Barinas, to a family of mixed European, Indian and Afro-Venezuelan heritage. Bart Jones’s excellent biography Hugo! nicely captures the improbability of Chávez’s rise from dirt-floor poverty through the military, where he became involved with left-wing politics, which in Venezuela meant a mix of international socialism and revolutionary nationalism. He drew inspiration from well-known figures such as Simón Bolívar, as well as lesser-known insurgents like the nineteenth-century peasant leader Ezequiel Zamora, in whose army Chávez’s great-great-grandfather had served. Born just a month after the CIA drove the reformist Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz from office, Chávez was a 19-year-old military cadet in September 1973 when he heard Fidel Castro on the radio announce yet another CIA-backed coup, this one toppling Salvador Allende in Chile.
Awash in oil wealth, Venezuela throughout the twentieth century enjoyed its own kind of exceptionalism, avoiding the extremes of left-wing radicalism and homicidal right-wing anticommunism that overtook many of its neighbors. In a way, Venezuela became the anti-Cuba: in 1958, political elites negotiated a pact that maintained the trappings of democratic rule for four decades, as two ideologically indistinguishable parties traded the presidency back and forth (sound familiar?). Where the State Department and its allied policy intellectuals isolated and condemned Havana, they celebrated Caracas as the end point of development. Samuel Huntington praised Venezuela as an example of “successful democratization,” while another political scientist, writing in the early 1980s, said it represented the “only trail to a democratic future for these developing societies…a textbook case of step-by-step progress.”