Chavez: the man and the myth

The Venezuelan president is not the revolutionary his Western admirers imagine him to be.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Western leftists who are disillusioned with social democratic leaders such as Tony Blair often look to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez for inspiration.

With his characteristic fiery rhetoric, Chavez often sounds as if he comes from another political age. He defends the poor against the ‘oligarchs’, rails against America, heralds nineteenth-century liberator Simon Bolivar, and builds alliances with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Venezuelan business elite’s constant attempts to depose him only add to his credibility.

Some in Britain may have been cheering at the heady scenes that accompanied Chavez’s victory in the 15 August referendum on his rule, which had been called by the mainly middle-class opposition. But beneath the colourful clothing, Chavez isn’t actually a world away from Blair. When the rose-tinted spectacles are taken off, Venezuelan politics suffers from many of the same limitations as here.

For all Chavez’s talk about bringing through a revolution in favour of the poor, his policies have been pretty conservative. There have been a lot of showy attacks on the old elite – he replaced judges, reshuffled executives on the state oil company, and undercut the Senate by establishing a new Constituent Assembly.

But even Chavez sympathiser Richard Gott admits that he has been ‘pragmatic’ with the economy – bringing in an austere and orthodox economic policy, seeking to keep on the right side of international investors (1). Edgardo Lander, sociology lecturer at Venezuelan Central University, said: ‘There has been no real redistribution of wealth, and land reform has been very timid. There’s been hardly any private property confiscated…and hardly any changes in the tax structure….’ (2)

In fact, the radical rhetoric is more a replacement for radical action than an expression of it. Chavez blows up his personality by shadowboxing and making eccentric statements, to compensate for his lack of programme. It might be more interesting, but this a third world equivalent of Bill Clinton playing his saxophone.

Meanwhile, Chavez’s oligarchic and imperialist enemies don’t quite match up to their image either. The opposition has been inept and incoherent – it tried a coup in April 2002, whipping Chavez away and inaugurating a new president, but then got stage fright and stood down a day-and-a-half later. Although the business elite hates Chavez with a vengeance, it doesn’t have any agenda to install in his place.

The USA has been handling Chavez with kid gloves. It clearly doesn’t like him, and there are rumours that the CIA provided some communications for the April 2002 coup. But America has vacillated, tentatively supporting the opposition’s position one day only to back down a few days later.

Chavez’s victory was sanctioned by former US president Jimmy Carter, head of the Carter Center that was overseeing the ballot. ‘I wish they would accept the results’, he told the opposition, rebutting their complaints about fraud. Compare this to America’s role in supporting Chile’s right-wing General Pinochet in his 1973 coup against Socialist president Salvador Allende. US President Richard Nixon had ordered the CIA to ‘make the economy scream’ and ‘prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him’. (Allende died in his Presidential Palace, under heavy assault from Pinochet’s aeroplanes and tanks.)

The Venezuelan referendum showed how politics is becoming polarised, not along the lines of left versus right, but along the lines of pro- and anti-Chavez. The question isn’t so much about whether you support land redistribution, but about whether you back The Man. Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at Kingston University, said that there’s no ‘movement’ without him: ‘the only thing that’s holding them all together is Chavez – and if he wasn’t there all of that would fragment.’ (3)

So Venezuela isn’t really an island of radicalism in a grey sea – it faces very similar problems as the rest of the world. If Western leftists want something radical, they should stop pinning their hopes on Chavez’s lapel, and start building progressive politics on home ground.

Read on:

A one-man revolution, by Josie Appleton

(1) In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, Richard Gott, Verso 2000

(2) Analysis: Chavez at eye of storm, BBC News, 13 August 2004

(3) Analysis: Chavez at eye of storm, BBC News, 13 August 2004

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Topics Politics


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