Sunday, October 7, 2007

The King of Venezuela

"Most remarkably, inequality and corruption have, by most measures, gotten marginally worse. From here on, with all his enemies vanquished, Chávez will have no one but himself to blame for the empty promises of his revolution."

Published: October 7, 2007
When Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, most of the world heeded the advice of the American ambassador in Caracas: “Watch what Chávez does, not what he says.”

On the campaign trail, Chávez had railed against liberal economics, the Venezuelan elite and United States influence in Latin America. He had shown himself to be a savvy political performer who would intersperse off-color jokes and prankish gimmicks among proclamations of a “revolution” that would wipe out the old political leadership — the “corruptocracy,” as he put it. Ignore all that, the ambassador’s line went. Despite the bluster, Chávez's actions would turn out to be fairly moderate.
The opposite advice would have been more helpful: everything Chávez said he would do, he has eventually done.

While gleefully playing the buffoon, he has dismantled and refashioned most of Venezuela’s political institutions, taken control of its crucial industries (oil, most importantly) and rewritten its Constitution — twice.

He has used headline-grabbing rhetoric, aggressive diplomacy and petrodollars to become one of the most famous political figures in the world. And he has recently set about abolishing term limits so he can stay in power as long as is necessary to build “21st-century socialism” in Venezuela.

Donald Rumsfeld has likened Chávez to Hitler; Chávez has likened himself to Jesus Christ.
His ability to make opponents underestimate him has always been one of Chávez's essential weapons.

Just six years before becoming president, he was an unknown lieutenant colonel whose frequent talk of rebellion was dismissed as messianic delusion. When an intelligence report warned of an imminent Chávez-led coup, Venezuela’s defense minister scoffed, and the report’s author was ordered to undergo a psychiatric exam. Weeks later, Chávez tried to overthrow the government, failing but nonetheless turning himself into a national celebrity.
Two new Chávez biographies, “Hugo Chávez,” by the Venezuelan journalists Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, and “¡Hugo!,” by a Newsday reporter and former Associated Press correspondent, Bart Jones, set out to explain how Chávez turned himself into the international figure he has become, and why.

Where they differ is on the question of underlying motivation. For Marcano and Barrera, Chávez's drive is explained mostly by megalomania — by the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power,” as their epigraph (from Hobbes) puts it. For Jones, it is explained by selfless outrage at the injustices of the world. Chávez may have an apparently unquenchable thirst for power, Jones concedes, but only because he needs it to triumph over the enemies of the people.
In interviews, Chávez has said he never imagined he would become president. But Marcano and Barrera’s meticulous, finely detailed account (in an updated, inelegant translation of a book published in Spanish in 2004) shows that he saw himself as a heroic figure long before anyone knew who he was. They gained access to Chávez himself and to scores of people who have known him, as well as to two decades’ worth of his personal diaries and letters (given to them by a former Chávez girlfriend). By the time Chávez was 19, a military cadet fresh from the impoverished Venezuelan interior, he was already talking to friends about saving the homeland. “I hope,” he wrote in his diary, “that one day I will be the one to bear the responsibility of an entire nation.”
Within a few years, the young Chávez was feverishly organizing revolutionary cells and fusing Marx, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Simón Bolívar into “a rudimentary amalgam of leftist ideas.” To some this may have seemed farcical, but Chávez was waiting for his main chance — the moment when mounting disaffection with an underperforming and vastly inequitable political and economic system would open the way for a boisterous military man promising to tear the whole structure down. Those cells later became an important power base for Chávez, and that “rudimentary amalgam” a framework for his “21st-century socialism.”
Marcano and Barrera propose a few explanations for Chávez's undeniable popular appeal. Venezuela’s combination of extensive oil resources and widespread poverty — a combination sadly common in petrostates — has long offered an opening for a people’s “avenger.” (It was a Venezuelan who first called oil “the devil’s excrement.”) “If there is one thing the president has most successfully communicated,” Marcano and Barrera write, “it is that he cares about people.” They also note the popularity of his social-welfare “missions.” Unfortunately, their enmity toward Chávez prevents them from fully conveying his savior-of-the-people charisma.
Jones does so much more successfully, in part because he is caught up in it himself. (At points, he veers into outright hagiography, admiringly quoting Chávez's poetry and going out of his way to excuse Chávez's rumored womanizing as the typical behavior of a Venezuelan man.) "Chávez's rise,” Jones writes, “represented the first time in the country’s history that the dark-skinned impoverished majority was seizing power. After decades, even centuries, of running the country like their own personal hacienda, the elites’ grip on the corruption-riddled and exploitative system was suddenly undone.”

Jones certainly captures the adulation of Venezuelans who view Chávez as a hero. Like Chávez and his most ardent supporters, Jones sees almost all criticism of the president as driven by “frustration, paranoia, classism ... racism and loss of power.” Although that is true of some of the more hysterical charges against Chávez, even the more measured criticisms — about his tendency to rule by decree and dismantle checks on executive power, for example — are, in Jones’s telling, just the baseless hypocrisy of opponents with sinister motives.
Jones is right, however, in describing those opponents, in both Venezuela and Washington, as inept.

Business leaders tried to unseat Chávez by shutting down the economy with a general strike and ended up giving him an excuse to kick them out of the oil industry just as prices were going through the roof. The political opposition tried to overthrow him in a 2002 coup and ended up discrediting itself as an enemy of democracy. United States officials denounced Chávez as a “hyena” and a “negative force in the region,” and ended up legitimating him as a proud Latin American nationalist bravely standing up to United States imperialism. As Jones makes clear, Chávez has won every confrontation he has been involved in.
In 2002, after the White House ham-handedly praised the short-lived coup in Caracas as a victory for democracy, Chávez issued a public challenge to President Bush. Waving a dollar bill in the air, he proposed to bet which of them would last longer in office. Now that Chávez has outmaneuvered or outlasted almost every one of his opponents, it is a wager that he is all but certain to win. He has suggested 2030 as the year when he might consider his revolution complete — a revolution that, Jones writes, is certain to alter the landscape of Venezuela and of Latin America.
In fact, much less has changed, for better or for worse, than Chávez's brash declarations and outsize profile would suggest. Chávez is not the bold revolutionary who has turned back the tide of history; nor is he the evil-genius dictator who has subverted democracy and the market throughout the hemisphere.

Despite his many well-financed, willfully provocative diplomatic initiatives in the region and elsewhere, the actual results of his foreign policy have been paltry: most of Latin America has accepted his money without embracing Chávez as a leader or a model. Within Venezuela, unemployment remains high, poverty has fallen only with rises in the price of oil (just as it has in past oil booms), and the main human-development indicators are little changed. Most remarkably, inequality and corruption have, by most measures, gotten marginally worse. From here on, with all his enemies vanquished, Chávez will have no one but himself to blame for the empty promises of his revolution.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.

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