The Fatal Attraction of Hugo Chavez

All political pundits now must suffer the compulsory assistance and thunder-stealing rivalry of Wikipedia: freely available, assured, anonymous, pseudo-authoritative. That has been even more obvious than usual in most Canadian thinkpieces on the death of Hugo Chavez. They suggest a familiarity with Latin America largely based on holidays in Castro Cuba, sometimes with at least a qualified sympathy, if not fawning admiration, for the Fidelista worldview. Tempering bien-pensant adoration with Wikipedian ‘balance’, obituary writers have usually settled for praising with faint damns. Typical was the full-page tribute in the March 6 Gazette, a Bloomberg News reprint, ‘The man who remade Venezuela’.

The article did offer one major point of substance. Its authors noted that the price of Venezuelan crude increased over 1000% from its $9 a barrel price when he took power to over $120 a barrel in 2009, which surely had as much to do with Venezuela’s ‘remaking’ as Chavez’s share-the-wealth populism. Venezuela sits on what is possibly the largest single pool of oil in the world, and since big oil has at various times greatly enriched, and as frequently destabilized, everyone from Oklahoma Indian tribes and Arab Bedouin to Alberta high school dropouts, it was not really all that remarkable that Chavez and previously impoverished Venezuelans should join the great global gravy train. Chavez might tell the United Nations that George Bush, was the Devil incarnate, and form a rhetorical alliances with Castro, Ahmedinejad, and even Robert Mugabe, but he did not stop selling oil to the Satanic kingdom and its indispensable Luciferian army of automobile owners. Fidel Castro, however much warmed by Chavez’s adoration, must surely have been green with envy. Himself having only large exports in sugar that he could transfer from the U. S. to the Soviet Union, his own all-day speeches had to paper over an impoverished reality. Chavez has been more like a tenured academic Marxist, able to spout the language of revolution while clinging to capitalist comforts.

There is something dissatisfying about the speciously evenhanded media tributes, as there also is about the furious ‘good riddance’ sendoffs provided by miscellaneous American neoconservative pundits. These latter could find plenty of ammunition in the increasingly totalitarian ‘remaking’ of Venezuela, but could not confidently claim they were saluting ‘the end of a hated tyrant’. Chavez has just remained too popular. He has long been disliked by most of the Venezuelan middle class, but Latin American middle classes, sometimes themselves at first carried along by the siren songs of revolution, have never been very consistently successful at providing a ‘North American’ version of middle class liberal democracy. Even when it has been achieved, it has constantly proved vulnerable to the chronic instability and unpopularity of the region’s boom-and-bust export trade in commodities, usually dominated by foreign business giants, and by two centuries of romantic, theatrical, and tragicomic political history.

That history, richly mythic, has frustrated many of the most intelligent and perceptive Latin Americans themselves, never mind pundits in the U. S. These latter have frequently tried to ram some of the most anarchic peoples to be found on earth into one of two Procrustean beds: the disastrous model of Marxist ‘class struggle’, or the less appalling but not much more successful inverted, or ‘capitalist-friendly’ Marxianism, found in the 1960s ‘Alliance for Progress’, expected to display the ‘Stages of Economic Growth’, rehashed in not much different neoconservative nostrums that arrived by three and four decades later.

Chavez was not alone in loudly rejecting North American ‘neoliberal’ or ‘neoconservative’ ideas. His combination of macho paratrooper bravado and booming oil revenues made him an especially noisy, extreme, and confident exponent of Robin Hood economics for all of Latin America, tied as well to a ‘Bolivarian’ dream of a larger union of South American states. But even quieter and more centrist regional politicians have found it expedient to offer admiring words for Chavez and even for Castro. While rhetoric is usually all they really want to offer, its perceived necessity arises from a fundamental division in European liberalism that emerged in the first half of the 19th century.

American neoconservatives are lineal descendants of the ‘Cold War liberal’ theorists of 1945-1990, who held up the Anglo-American liberal tradition as the one true path to both freedom and democracy. Their current emulators have tried to maintain this, arguing not only that Marxist economic policies are inefficient, inevitably dictatorial, and ultimately evil, for which there has always been a good case in the long run, but by liberal definition, undemocratic. That term could certainly be used justifiably about the Soviet Union and China, as it could about the eastern European countries forced into ‘the socialist camp’ after 1945. But when Latin Americans, from Nobel-Prize-winning novelists to the illiterate poor use words like ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ they do not often give them the same meaning that they commonly have in the Anglosphere. They may not instead mean, as Americans have often too casually assumed, just the hypocritical boilerplate of Leninist ‘democratic centralism’, but they do apply a concept of ‘democracy’ that comes not from the law-bound ‘propertarian’ democratic order launched by the American Revolution and gradually broadened in scope and international impact.

They more commonly have thought in terms of the ‘democracy.’ claimed by the French Revolution, and above all the France of Napoleon Bonaparte. That was ‘democracy’ conceived of in terms of a Rousseauist, even Hobbesian ‘general will’, expressed, even ‘legitimately’ expressed, through the thought and action of a new and popular philosopher-king. This kind of ‘democracy’, not necessarily friendly to American interests, may actually have majority support in some countries, and especially in Latin America.

The great hero of all of Latin America is Simon Bolivar, a gifted, complex, and frequently frustrated hero, seen as a Washington, Jefferson, and Napoleon, all rolled into one. And like Napoleon, he was also a Caesar, in the sense of the popular authoritarian political leader who maintains his power through a combination of personal charisma, mass appeal, and constant adaptation to an ever-changing revolutionary project. To Bolivar’s credit, he was not all that happy playing Caesar, or engaging in Robin Hood economics; he remained a romantic but genuine liberal, in the early 19th century sense.

His own ‘Caesarism’ came mostly from trying to assert control over regional chaos after the fall of the Spanish Empire. But while he died in 1840 when only 57, both his tumultuous military and political career and his voluminous writings left an immense and ambiguous heritage, to which almost any Latin American national leader can claim lineal descent by selective citation. None of them, Chavez included, have been very persuasive as reincarnations of the mythic hero. Bolivar came from a very wealthy and very old South American family, and was educated as a polished aristocrat. As a young man he had witnessed Napoleon’s imperial coronation in Paris, and admitted to being very impressed by it. But Bonaparte impressed him more as a monarchial reformer than as a voice and champion of impoverished masses. In fact, Bolivar’s writings have been drawn on frequently by Latin American conservatives.

However, Chavez has tried to claim the revolutionary Bolivar as his own model and ideal, actually renaming his country ‘the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, erecting a gigantic Bolivar statue in Caracas, and, in a fine melodramatic touch, even having the famous liberator’s bones dug up for chemical tests to find whether there was any truth in a conspiracy theory that, rather from dying of tuberculosis, Bolivar had been poisoned by Columbian enemies.

It could as well be said that neither Barack Obama nor his main Republican opponents are much more like the American Founding Fathers than Chavez is like Bolivar, and citizens of Obama’s America, with its own Robin Hood and police state enthusiasms, are no longer in as strong a position as they once were in holding up American political and legal freedom as an ideal for all others to emulate. As well, they now live in a society with too many pundits and policy advisers who are, like Chavez and Obama themselves, graduates in political science, with little knowledge or understanding of history, and thereby of the historical and cultural factors that have shaped different kinds of successful and unsuccessful political ideas. Hence the ‘Mediterranean’, Catholic, macho, sexy, and above all, theatrical and bella figura politics south of the Rio Grande is now little more comprehensible to many members of the American political elite than the joyous entrepreneurial capitalism of Silicon Valley has been to the Liberation Theology monasteries and convents of Central America.

A genuine reincarnation of Simon Bolivar is not very likely, but there will probably be many more versions of Hugo Chavez, long a much more familiar type from ancient times to 1930s Louisiana, to present Ecuador. They may quote Bolivar as well, but not one of his saddest late observations: ‘All those who served the revolution have ploughed the sea.”