Sunday, April 17, 2005

Thoughts on Hugo Chavez

Inspired by a comment from Gabe.

Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez has become somewhat of a darling figure to the American Left. I admire him in a lot of ways. But I think that some of the support for him is problematic.

Gabe's very good comment pointed out a few things that should be considered -- their is al oligarch controlled media in Venezuela that is angered by Chavez's populism. Chavez has, as Gabe said, tried to better share oil revenues with the people of Venezuela, many who live in dire poverty despite, in a circumstance that is all to familiar in world affairs, living on land that holds a valuable natural resource. The media, controlled by rich folks with oil interests, have been anti-Chavez in their coverage for years.

But. Chavez responded in the wrong way. He has shut down media outlets. He has censored broadcasts and publications and he's basically used the power of the state to chill free expression. See, if you believe in free speech, than even rich people get to speak freely. Admitting that the ooligrachs acted badly, you have to agree that Chavez responded badly, waging a war against expression that did him little good and that, ultimately, can't be won.

Chavez is unpopular in the US because he's friends with Castro. In fact, Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil so the two countries have a highly symbiotic relationship. Since we've never had a rational policy towards Castro, I don't expect the mainstream US to react well to this. But, again, this is Castro we're talking about. From what I've read, the arly Castro, the revolutionary Castro, was an admirable figure. He really did lead Cuba out of economic oppression. Problem is, and the US is partly to blame for this, Castro led his people right into another kind of oppression. Chavez either can't distinguish between the revolutionary and modern Castros, or, he's the kind of guy who, like Castro, will use any means to obtain a desired result. I worry that he's the latter.

Now, there were credible allegations of election fraud, including intimidation and ballot stuffing in Venezuela's last elections. Both Colin Powell and Jimmy Carter signed off on those elections as legitimate but, as time passed even they seemed to admit that there were eyebrow raising questions they hadn't considered. As Gabe said, our last two Presidential elections were far from perfect and I think there's a case to be made that Chavez enjoys the same popular support in Venezuela as any post Bush-I American President has.

See, there are lots of reasons not to villify the guy. I suspect that we would have better relationships with him if, as with past Venezueland leaders, Chavez cheated on OPEC oil prices. One of the big changes Chavez made, which has annoyed the US, is that he turned Venezuela from an OPEC cheat into an OPEC follower. In fact, back in 2000 I wrote an article for Forbes about an oil analyst who believed the price of oil would go up steadily, in part, due to Chavez's presidency.

But I'm really worried about the left making Chavez into another populist hero, to be tacked up on a dorm room wall next to the psychedelic Che poster... I'd warn people that there are signs that Chez is more committed to his own power than to any Democratic or populist ideal. Castro was the same way. The early Castro talked a good game and he got things done. But there was an transformation in Castro from populist to dictator. Might Chavez, at war with powerful forces in Venezuela, also turn down that path? Has he already turned a bit with his censorship of the media and his mistreatment of dissidents?

Human Rights Watch has frequently criticized Chavez for silencing Venezuela's media and for changing the laws so that he can pack the supreme court their with his allies. A human rights lawyer faces political persecution and prosecution for his alleged role in the 2002 coup against Chavez. I think we'd be foolish, at this point, to make a hero out of a man who doesn't pass muster with HRW.

This guy's history has not been written yet. A hostile US foreign policy could push Chavez to questionable extremes, just as our Cold War mindset once helped to turn Castro from a possible agent for progressive change into a power0hungry strongman.

But, for now, I advise looking on Chavez with a hopeful, but skeptical eye.


At 6:04 PM , Blogger Gabriel said...

Chavez has problems I admit. I just get tired of him being villified in the media constantly. Thank you for a sobering view.


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