Editorial note: This essay appears in the current issue of Chronicles magazine, the feisty conservative monthly put out by the Rockford Institute, where my column “Between the Lines” appears regularly. Normally, the content I provide Chronicles is exclusive: that is, you can only get it by subscribing or buying on the newsstand. However, the editors have kindly allowed me to post this piece here. To find out what you’re missing, you can subscribe at a special rate for Antiwar.com readers: call 800-383-0680 (toll free) and mention Antiwar.com.
The death of Hugo Chavez Frias provoked cries of “Hallelujah!” from pundits on the right. Michael Moynihan, writing in the Daily Beast (the internet incarnation of Newsweek), jeered “Good riddance!” while he danced on the Venezuelan strongman’s grave. All the usual suspects – the War Street Journal, the “conservatives” over at National Review, and the Israel Firsters of Commentary – took the opportunity to revile the deceased. Their collective view of Chavez’s Venezuela was summed up by Rory Carroll’s recent polemic, Commandante, as “a land of power cuts, broken escalators, shortages, queues, insecurity, bureaucracy, unreturned calls, unfilled holes, uncollected garbage.” That this could easily describe any number of American cities – say, Detroit – is apparently lost on Chavez’s detractors.
Chavez was regularly denounced as a “dictator” – a curious charge in view of the fact that he won no less than nine national elections hands down. In spite of the millions of US taxpayer dollars poured into the coffers of the anti-Chavez opposition – and a US-supported military coup in 2002 – Chavismo won the hearts and minds of Venezuelans.
The reasons for this are not hard to discern. Venezuela pre-Chavez was supposed to be a model for the region – until things fell apart. The fourth-largest supplier of oil to the US, the country had been a Latinized version of the US for 40 years: power had regularly switched back and forth between the “left”-leaning Democratic Action party and the slightly more conservative Social Christian party. But the worm in the apple was stirring – and when the bottom fell out of the oil market, in the 1980s, the worm emerged in the form of an economic downturn that sent the nation reeling. The irony is that the conditions Chavez’s detractors attribute to his rule were present at the creation: per capita income dropped precipitously, inflation soared, and, by the time Chavez emerged as a major player, capital was fleeing the country at a rate of $500 million every month. The most free-spending government in the region was blindsided by a foreign debt of $29 billion. The social order began to break down: Caracas, always a bit threadbare, descended into seediness. Strikes broke out and brought what remained of public services to a grinding halt.
The ruling elite – “Spanish” grandees who kept their distance from the Indian majority, both figuratively and literally – ignored the crisis, and the political system descended into gridlock. The two major parties were concerned only with preserving their perks and privileges, and corruption was rampant. Chavez’s moment had come.
Born to a poor family in the agricultural region of Barinas, in the poor village of Sabaneta, Chavez was sent to live with his grandmother because the family could not afford to support him. He lionized his great-great-grandfather, who had served in the army of Ezequiel Zamora, the 19th century liberal general who rose in 1876 in an abortive coup against the central government. He entered a military academy in Caracas at age 17, where he took up the study of Simon Bolivar, his hero, and was influenced by the left-leaning military leaders who were then prominent in South and Central American politics: Omar Torrigos of Panama and Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru. Sent to the rural areas to fight leftist insurgents, Chavez saw that the poverty of these landless folks was what motivated the Maoist guerrillas he was battling, and he soon became sympathetic to their plight if not their methods. He began to meet with leftist leaders, and, one day, coming upon a bullet-ridden car used by the guerrillas, he found a cache of literature, including the works of Marx, Mao, and – most importantly – a biography of General Zamora, his youthful hero, whose life he assiduously studied.
By 1977, he had founded a secret revolutionary cell in the armed forces, based on what he called “Bolivarianism“: although he had read the Marxist classics, Chavez was no red but a fervent nationalist who wanted to throw out the corrupt elites – the grandees who extracted oil profits from the soil of Venezuela and invested it in Miami’s luxury highrises. Rejecting both capitalism and communism, he sought to construct an ideology based on the “three roots of the tree,” a nationalist triumvirate of Bolivar, Zamora, and Simon Rodriguez (Bolivar’s tutor and mentor).
The 1989 election of Carlos Andres Perez – who had promised to defy the so-called “Washington Consensus” of neoliberal “reforms” – ended in riots as the new President backed down on his campaign promises and bowed to Washington’s diktat. Social programs were cut, land reform was stymied, and the country was opened up to foreign looters. The riots were put down with brutal force: hundreds were massacred. What Chavez called “the dictatorship of the IMF” had triumphed – but he had a plan.
On February 4, 1992, the Chavistas rose up: commanding four military units, Chavez tried to seize the presidential palace, issue a call to rebellion on national television, and take power. The coup failed, however, and Chavez gave himself up to the government, but not before making a deal: he would agree to order his supporters throughout the country to lay down their arms on the condition that he be allowed to appear on television for a final statement – to be delivered in his military uniform.
It was a stroke of genius: the broadcast made him a hero to the urban poor: a popular film was made of his life story. There were massive demonstrations outside his jail cell: he was transferred to another facility. In 1994, he was freed by newly-elected President Rafael Caldera, who had pledged to do so during the campaign: however, Chavez was not allowed to return to the military, where he might organize another coup. He set about building his Bolivarian movement even as Venezuela took a turn for the worse. Inflation was rampant, crime was pandemic, and the country was coming apart at the seams: President Caldera was charged with malfeasance in office and misappropriation of funds, and impeached.
Chavez gave up his dreams of a coup and entered electoral politics, founding his Fifth Republic Movement in 1997 and standing for president as its candidate the next year. The central message of his campaign was a direct attack on the system known as puntofijisimo, the political patronage system that doled out resources via the two “major” parties. Those parties, unbeknownst to them, were about to be reduced to minor party status. With the backing of a center-left coalition, as well as the largely irrelevant Communist Party, Chavez won over 56 percent of the vote – in spite of a smear campaign in the oligarch-controlled media, including the charge that he was a cannibal with a particular taste for tender young children.
His first term in office hardly lived up to his revolutionary rhetoric: he pursued moderately “left”-wing social democratic policies, and even paid a visit to the New York Stock Exchange, where he encouraged investors to sink their money into the new Venezuela. His social welfare programs were exemplified by “Plan Bolivar,” in which the army was instructed to go out into the streets, repair roads and dilapidated homes, and sell food at bargain prices. The program was begun on the anniversary of the 1989 massacre: “We gave them lead,” Chavez remarked, “now we will give them love.”
He held a national referendum on a new constitution that would set up a constituent assembly for the express purpose of abolishing government agencies and dismissing corrupt public officials. He gave back the land to the indigenous peoples it had been stolen from. He started a national literacy campaign, which has succeeded in raising the literacy level to levels unparalleled on the continent.
Washington hated him from the beginning, and did everything to undermine him – including supporting a failed 2002 coup, which was stymied in the end by a mass outpouring of popular protest. Chavez returned to power with a new determination to jealously guard his country’s independence. As he later put it:
“The Bolivarian Movement was born in the barracks some 15 years ago when a group of soldiers came to the conclusion that the enemy was not communism, but imperialism. For many years we worked carefully and gradually to develop a nationalist, patriotic movement with one hand in the barracks and another on the street. We developed a Bolivarian conception of revolution, which understands that we face a different empire to that confronted by Bolívar. Bolívar, however, did foresee that North America was destined to plague us in the name of liberty.
“. . . We pose the questions of independence and sovereignty by calling for a new continent-wide independence movement,” he averred. The system that had dominated his country since 1945 “was broken,” and “there are no half-measures on questions of sovereignty. There has to be direct democracy, people’s government with popular assemblies and congresses where the people retain the right to remove, nominate, sanction, and recall their elected delegates and representatives.”
In the name of “free enterprise” – Washington-style – the crony capitalists who had taken Venezuela by the throat were choking the nation to death and then fleeing with the proceeds to Miami. Chavez put a stop to that, to Washington’s lasting irritation, as well as putting a stop to overflights by US “drug-fighting” aircraft. His nationalist ideology, expressed in terms of Venezuela’s foreign policy, was to align with whatever tinpot despotism the US was currently trying to overthrow, from “Brother Qadaffi” to Iran’s mullahs. US involvement in the 1992 coup attempt was doubtless behind much of this, but there was an ideological basis for it as well.
It was convenient for the Western media to characterize Chavez as a radical socialist, a “red,” and his friendship with Fidel Castro, whom he called “my father,” is all the evidence long-out-of-work cold warriors require to condemn him as a Marxist “revolutionary.” Yet he was a profoundly conservative man, whose policies proceeded from a regionalist nationalism: Bolivarian populism, as originally conceived, is closer, ideologically, to the American revolutionaries of 1776 than to the Bolshevik revolutionaries of 1917. He laced his rhetoric with leftist rhetoric, and even changed the name of his movement to include the word socialist, and yet this was mainly window-dressing for what was, essentially, a radical nationalism with conventional social democratic overtones. He was, in essence, a patriot, and not a revolutionary at all.
Which is, of course, precisely why the globalists in Washington had every good reason to celebrate his death.