Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name

For those of you that aren't familiar with the word "caudillo", the closest explanation is a strong leader that rules for many years with excessive power.

Venezuela's Chavez: A Caudillo by Any Other Name
*By Tracy Dove, Ph.D
Editor, The Russia News Service August 26, 2007


The news coming out of Venezuela these days is entertaining to say the least, and any Woody Allen fan will recognize in Hugo Chavez an anti-hero image reminiscent of Allen's 1970's film parody in Central America, Bananas. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as it is now officially called, is run by a president who believes in re-distributive socialism and regular reinforcement of the cult of personality. This week, Chavez has announced the decision to move the nation's clocks 30 minutes forward to provide for more sunlight when the Bolivarian proletariat wakes from its dreams of floating island platforms, North Korean parades and lot and lots of oil. So who is this Chavez- wielding the peoples' sundial- and has there ever been anything like him in the past?

Most certainly; Chavez belongs to the genre of South American Caudillos that once ruled the 19th century republics of the continent and most often met with fiery and untimely ends. In Venezuela, we are reminded of the corrupt and ridiculously self-important president Cipriano Castro who ruled the country from 1899 to 1909. Castro was one of the strongmen who gathered the thugs and the disaffected peasantry and trained them into a formidable army which was then marched on Caracas in October of 1899 to overthrow the presidency- which was conveniently vacated for the purpose once Castro's forces defeated government troops.

Not unlike Chavez today, Castro proceeded to change the constitution to fit his personal vision of what government should be; he threatened the opposition and had its leaders assassinated before having himself re-elected the official head of state in 1904. Properly secure in power, Castro lived a life of luxury by way of executive order and was quick to slap the peasantry into obedience when they frequently rebelled. Besides plundering the state treasury, Castro nurtured bad relations with most states around him and thumbed his nose at the European banks that loaned his country money. Already in 1902 he had defaulted on debts owed to the colonial powers, and these responded by sending warships to blockade the country's ports and occasionally fired on shoreline fortifications to remind Castro what the cost of money was.

Remember, this was 1902 and the heyday of new European imperialism, and the American President didn't appreciate having British, Italian and German warships in the hemisphere that was clearly demarcated as colonial-free by the 1828 Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt didn't quite know what to do with Castro, just as our current Bush administration is baffled about what to do with Chavez. But the situation became dire when intelligence reports suggested that Germany was looking for new colonies in the region, and Roosevelt reluctantly sent American warships to Venezuela to scare off the vultures, thereby legitimizing Castro and inadvertently postponing the payment of his debts to Europe.

But Roosevelt was nobody's fool, and he didn't contract malaria in the jungles of Brazil to let himself be led around by the nose by some illegitimate cowboy sitting in Caracas. In 1904, Roosevelt addressed the US Congress and added a stipulation to the Monroe Doctrine that would allow the US- as part of its policing power of the Western hemisphere- to intervene in the internal affairs of the American states if bad government there led to the imperial takeover of them by any colonial power. This so-called "corollary" to the famous doctrine was one of the spurious arguments employed in arguing for Kennedy's doomed Bay of Pigs operation in 1962.

(Venezuelan) Castro didn't last much beyond the next round of creditors' disillusionment with the financial situation in the Caracas banks; in 1907 he was forced to accept arbitration in regard to the debt, and Venezuela was forced to sign on the dotted line of repayment. Ill with syphilis due to his obvious social recklessness, Castro left for Paris in 1908 to seek treatment for the disease, which opened the door for his best friend- the Vice President Juan Vicente Gomez- to overthrow Castro's rule. The deposed leader spent the rest of his miserable life in Puerto Rico trying to re-overthrow Gomez, who had learned to multiply the excesses of the Castro regime for his own term in office, which lasted until 1935.

The difference today is obvious in Chavez' Venezuela; firstly, el Supremo is widely popular in Venezuela, and he really is spending the oil revenues on the people. Secondly, Chavez looks healthy and might not need to leave for any western hospitals anytime soon. Cuban doctors are certainly caring for Chavez, whose designs on the clocks may seem absurd, but it is right to point out that Afghanistan, India, Iran and Myanmar also have half-hour increments off of Greenwich Mean Time- so the intention of the Ministry of the Popular Power of Science and Technology, as it is called, might be well-credited for allowing Venezuela's 27 million to wake up happier to the sunshine- as dictated by Caudillo Hugo Chavez.

*Tracy Dove, editor of The Russia News Service, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague.

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