The Audacity of Hugo

The Audacity of Hugo

In fourteen years, Chávez radically transformed Venezuela’s economy and society—and the majority of country loved him for it.


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.”

* * *

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.”

We know now that Venezuela’s institutions were rotting from the inside out. Every sin that Chávez is accused of committing—corruption, governing without accountability, marginalizing the opposition, appointing partisan supporters to the judiciary, intimidating labor unions, professional organizations and civil society, and using oil revenues to dispense patronage—flourished in a system that the United States held up as exemplary.

But by the mid-1980s, petroleum prices began to fall. By this point, Venezuela had grown lopsidedly urban, with more than half of city residents living below the poverty line, many in extreme poverty. In Caracas, combustible concentrations of poor people lived cut off from services like sanitation and safe drinking water, and hence from the parties’ patronage and control. The spark came in February 1989, when the recently inaugurated President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had run against the International Monetary Fund, said that he no choice but to submit to its dictates. He announced a plan to abolish food and fuel subsidies, increase gas prices, privatize state industries, and cut spending on healthcare and education.

Three days of rioting and looting followed and spread throughout the capital, an event that marked the end of Venezuelan exceptionalism and the beginning of the hemisphere’s increasingly focused opposition to neoliberalism. Established parties, unions and government institutions proved entirely incapable of restoring legitimacy in austere times, committed as they were to upholding a profoundly unequal class structure.

Chávez emerged from the ruin, first with a failed putsch in 1992, which landed him in jail but turned him into a folk hero, and then in 1998, when he won 56 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate. Inaugurated in 1999, he took office committed to a broad yet vague anti-austerity program, a mild John Kenneth Galbraith–quoting reformer who at first had no power to reform anything. The esteem in which Chávez was held by the majority of Venezuelans, many of them dark-skinned, was matched by the rage he provoked among the country’s mostly white political and economic elites. But their maximalist program of opposition—a US-endorsed coup, an oil strike that destroyed the country’s economy, a recall election and a propaganda campaign in the oligarch media that made Fox News seem like PBS—backfired. By late 2004, Chávez had weathered the storm and was in control of the nation’s oil, allowing him to embark on an ambitious program of domestic and international transformation: massive social spending at home and “poly-polar equilibrium” abroad, a riff on what Bolívar once called “universal equilibrium” (an effort to break up the United States’ historical monopoly of power in Latin America and force Washington to compete for influence).

* * *

Over the last fourteen years, Chávez has submitted himself and his agenda to fifteen national votes, winning fourteen of them by large margins in elections deemed by Jimmy Carter the “best in the world” out of the ninety-two elections he has monitored. It turns out that it isn’t that difficult to have transparent elections: voters in Venezuela cast their ballots on a touch pad, which spits out a receipt that they can check and then deposit in a box. At the end of the day, random polling stations are picked for “hot audits” to make sure the electronic and paper tallies add up. A case has been made that this ballot-box proceduralism isn’t democratic, that Chávez dispenses patronage and dominates the media, giving him an unfair advantage. But after the last presidential election—which Chávez won with nearly the same percentage as his first, yet with a greatly expanded electorate—even his opponents have admitted, despairingly, that a majority of Venezuelans liked, if not adored, the man.

I’m what they call a useful idiot when it comes to Hugo Chávez, if only because rank-and-file social organizations in Venezuela that seem to me worthy of support continued to champion him until the end. My impressionistic sense is that this support can be divided roughly fifty-fifty. One-half of Chávez’s supporters are people who think their lives are better off because of his massive expansion of state services, including healthcare and education, despite the real problems of crime, corruption, shortages and inflation. The reduction of poverty in Venezuela since Chávez took office has been dramatic: since 1999, the number of households in poverty fell from 42.8 percent to 26.7 percent. The rate of decline has been even greater since 2004, when Chávez’s government gained control of the oil revenues.

The other half of Chávez’s electoral majority is made up of citizens involved in one or another of the country’s many grassroots organizations. Chávez’s social base was diverse and heterodox: neighborhood councils, urban and rural homesteaders, environmental coalitions, feminists, gay and lesbian rights organizations, economic justice activists, breakaway unions and the like. These new social movements are distinct from the established trade unions and peasant organizations that are vertically linked with (and subordinated to) political parties or populist leaders. And it’s these organizations, in Venezuela and elsewhere throughout the region, that have done heroic work over the past few decades in democratizing society, as well as in giving citizens venues to survive the extremes of neoliberalism and fight against further depredations, turning Latin America into one of the last global bastions of the Enlightenment left.

Chávez’s detractors see this mobilized sector of the population much the way Mitt Romney saw 47 percent of the US electorate: not as citizens but parasites, moochers sucking on the oil-rent teat. Those who acknowledged that Chávez had majority support nonetheless disparaged that support as a form of emotional enthrallment. Voters, one critic wrote, see their own vulnerability in their leader and are entranced. Another talked about Chávez’s “magical realist” hold over his followers.

One anecdote alone should be enough to put the lie to the notion that poor Venezuelans voted for Chávez because they were fascinated by the baubles he dangled in front of them. During the 2006 presidential campaign, the signature pledge of Chávez’s opponent was to give millions of poor Venezuelans a black credit card (black as in the color of oil) from which they could draw up to $450 in cash a month, which would have bankrupted the national treasury. (Call it “neoliberal populism”: giving the poor just enough to bankrupt the government and force the defunding of services.) Over the years, there’s been a lot of heavy theoretical breathing by US academics about the miasma that oil wealth creates in countries like Venezuela, lulling citizens into a dreamlike state that renders them passive spectators. But in this election, at least, Venezuelans managed to see through the mist: Chávez won with more than 62 percent of the vote.

Let’s set aside for the time being the question of whether Chavismo’s social welfare programs will endure now that Chávez is gone. The participatory democracy that took place in the barrios, in workplaces and in the countryside over the last fourteen years was a value in and of itself. There’s been great work done on the ground on these social movements—by scholars like Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller and George Ciccariello-Maher—that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere. One study found that organized Chavistas held to “liberal conceptions of democracy” and “pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. What political scientists criticize as hyper-dependency on a strongman, Venezuelan activists understand as mutual reliance, though with an acute awareness of the limits and shortcomings of this reliance.

Over the years, this or that leftist has pronounced themselves “disillusioned” with Chávez, setting out some standard drawn from theory or history and then proclaiming that the Venezuelan leader had fallen short. He’s a Bonapartist, wrote one. He’s no Allende, sighed another. To paraphrase the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, nothing surprises these critics, and therefore they are never surprising. But there are indeed many surprising things about Chavismo in relationship to Latin American history.

First, the military in Latin America is best known for its homicidal right-wing sadists, many of them trained by the United States in places like the School of the Americas. But the region’s armed forces have occasionally thrown up anti-imperialists and economic nationalists. In this sense, Chávez is similar to Argentina’s Perón and Guatemala’s Arbenz, as well as Panama’s Omar Torrijos and Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado. But when they weren’t being either driven from office (Arbenz) or killed (Torrijos?), these military populists inevitably veered quickly to the right. Within a few years of his 1946 election, Perón was cracking down on unions, going so far as to endorse the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954. In Peru, the radical phase of the military government lasted seven years. Chávez, in contrast, was in office fourteen years, and he never turned on or repressed his base.

Second, and related, for decades now social scientists have been telling us that the kind of mobilized regime Venezuela represents is pump-primed for violence, that such governments can maintain energy only through internal repression or external war. But despite years of denouncing the oligarchy as squalid traitors, Venezuela has seen remarkably little political repression—certainly less than in Nicaragua in the 1980s under the Sandinistas or in Cuba today, not to mention the United States.

Oil wealth has much to do with this exceptionalism, as it also had in the elite, top-down democracy that existed before Chávez. But so what? Chávez did what rational actors in the neoliberal interstate order are supposed to do: he leveraged Venezuela’s comparative advantage not just to fund social organizations, but to give them unprecedented freedom and power.

* * *

Chávez was a strongman: he packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any system of institutional checks and balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian, but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.

Chavismo came to power through the ballot following the near-total collapse of Venezuela’s existing establishment. It enjoyed overwhelming rhetorical and electoral hegemony, but not administrative hegemony. As such, it had to make significant compromises with existing power blocs in the military, the civil and educational bureaucracy, and even the outgoing political elite, all of whom were loath to give up their illicit privileges and pleasures. 

Once the Chávez government gained access to oil money in 2004, it opted not to confront these pockets of corruption and power but simply to fund parallel institutions, including the social missions that provided healthcare, education and other welfare services. This was both a blessing and a curse, the source of Chavismo’s strength and weakness.

Before Chávez, competition for government power and resources took place largely within the very narrow boundaries of two elite political parties. After Chávez’s election, political jockeying took place within Chavismo itself. Rather than forming a single-party dictatorship with an interventionist state bureaucracy controlling people’s lives, Chavismo has been fairly wide open and chaotic. It’s significantly more inclusive than the old duopoly, comprising at least five different currents: a new Bolivarian political class, older leftist parties, economic elites, military interests and the social movements mentioned above. 

Oil money, combined with a set of impressive political skills, gave Chávez the luxury of acting as a broker between these competing tendencies, allowing each to pursue its own interests and deferring confrontations among them indefinitely. Everybody got to do what they wanted: the moneyed interests got to be corrupt; the social movements got to build something approximating an anarcho-democratic republic, made up of thousands of cooperatives, peasant organizations, community councils, local radio and TV stations, and so on. 

On second thought, then, perhaps more authoritarianism wouldn’t have been a good thing. True, it might have created a stronger, more efficient state that could keep crime and corruption in check. But it also would have co-opted the grassroots into the state, creating something that probably would have looked like the PRI after the Mexican Revolution.

The high point of Chávez’s international agenda was his relationship with Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Latin American leader whom US foreign policy and opinion makers tried to set as Chávez’s opposite. Where Chávez was reckless, Lula was moderate. Where Chávez was confrontational, Lula was pragmatic. Lula himself never bought this nonsense, consistently rising to Chávez’s defense and endorsing his election.

* * *

For a good eight years, they worked something like a Laurel and Hardy routine, with Chávez acting the buffoon and Lula the straight man. But each was dependent on the other, and each was aware of this dependency. Chávez often stressed the importance of Lula’s election in late 2002, just a few months after April’s failed coup attempt, which gave him his first real ally of consequence in a region then still dominated by neoliberals. Likewise, the confrontational Chávez made Lula’s reformism that much more palatable. WikiLeaks documents reveal the skill with which Lula’s diplomats gently but firmly rebuffed the Bush administration’s pressure to isolate Venezuela.

Their inside-outside rope-a-dope was on full display at the November 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina, where the United States hoped to lock in its deeply unfair economic advantage with a proposed hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas. In the meeting hall, Lula lectured Bush on the hypocrisy of protecting corporate agriculture with subsidies and tariffs even as he pushed Latin America to open its markets. Meanwhile, Chávez led 40,000 protesters on the street and promised to “bury” the FTAA agreement. The treaty was indeed derailed, and in the years that followed, Venezuela and Brazil, along with other Latin American nations, have presided over a remarkable transformation in hemispheric relations, coming as close as ever to achieving Bolívar’s “universal equilibrium.”

* * *

When I met Chávez after his controversial appearance at the UN, it was at a small lunch in the Venezuelan consulate. Danny Glover was there, and he and Chávez talked about the possibility of producing a movie on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the former slave who led the Haitian Revolution. Also present was a friend and activist who works on the issue of debt relief for poor countries. At the time, a proposal to relieve the debt owed to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) by the poorest countries in the Americas had stalled, largely because mid-level bureaucrats from Argentina, Mexico and Brazil opposed the initiative. My friend lobbied Chávez to speak to Lula and Argentina’s president, Néstor Kirchner, another of the region’s leftist leaders, and get them to jump-start the deal.

Chávez asked a number of thoughtful questions, at odds with the provocateur on display at the UN. Why, he wanted to know, was the Bush administration in favor of the plan? My friend explained that some Treasury officials were libertarians who, if not in favor of debt relief, wouldn’t block the deal. “Besides,” he said, “they don’t give a shit about the IADB.” Chávez then asked why Brazil and Argentina were holding things up. Because, my friend said, their representatives to the IADB were functionaries deeply invested in the viability of the bank, and they thought debt abolition a dangerous precedent.

We later got word that Chávez had successfully lobbied Lula and Kirchner to support the deal. In November 2006, the IADB announced that it would write off billions of dollars in debt to Nicaragua, Guyana, Honduras and Bolivia (Haiti was later added). And so the man routinely compared in the United States to Josef Stalin quietly joined forces with the administration of the man he had just called Satan to help make the lives of some of the poorest people in the Americas just a bit more bearable.

Peruse these selections from The Nation’s coverage of Hugo Chávez.

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