For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law. ~ Hugo Chavez
I regret having to abuse Orwell two days in a row, but defenses of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and, depressingly, Western leftist circles, echo of doublespeak. Despite usually proclaiming the demolition of capital transaction, in all 20th century communist regimes one trade invariably persisted: that between political liberties and social conditions. They diverged; the improvement of one was to the detriment of the latter. Stalin managed both to unleash Terror and systematise universal health; and the reverse was the case when the Soviet Union collapsed, with democracy founded on the most ruinous infrastructure. Cuba, too, is remarkable for its health care system, its social equality, and its generally liberal cultural outlook – a pity that fraternal dictatorships strangle its political freedoms like a gardener clutching weeds by their roots.
But a transition has occurred in recent years, and with remarkable velocity. William Dobson’s latest book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, is of especial importance to my generation who know little about the ancien regimes of bygone dictator’s: we grew up in an world receptive to democracy and to the ideas of pluralism and the vote, assuming that the world of Idi Amin or Pol Pot or Mao or even Tito was one consigned to the world of history. There were crazed dictators out there, but they were increasingly dying off-breeds of the Medieval worlds. And yet if one looks more closely, one can’t help but feel that that’s receding, that the tide is going out. There are a huge more nominal democracies in the world than there were half a century ago, but for many that is all they remain: nominal. Authoritarians have learnt how to adapt popular institutions, to rule not by the fist but by the vote; the vote becomes a weapon, manipulated behind the scenes and in the polling booths, and then masqueraded as a guarantee of political legitimacy. Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad have all failed to do this, and for this they fall. Others are not so stupid.
Nobody embodies this spirit better than the late Hugo Chavez, until a week ago the President of Venezuela. In office for more than a decade, he consistently scored the majority of the popular vote. In the most literal sense of the word he was one of the most successful democrats ever to have triumphed in pluralism; for this Dobson was, I think, too flippant in fashioning him a “dictator”. But he was an authoritarian, and he was coercive; but he was also persuasive and depressingly charismatic. Human Rights Watch has pulled out just a few ways in which he manipulated the Venezuelan constitution. Crawling into the judiciary:
In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters.
Over electronic media:
It expanded the number of government-run TV channels from one to six, while taking aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming.
Putting its political victims in the shadows and hissing away the investigators:
The Chávez government also sought to block international organizations from monitoring the country’s human rights practices. In 2008, the president had representatives of Human Rights Watch forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country after they released a report documenting his government’s violation of human rights norms. Following the expulsion, his then-foreign minister and now chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, announced that, “Any foreigner who comes to criticize our country will be immediately expelled.”
And in spite of this Chavez was – and sadly remains – something of an ideologue for a lot of Western leftists who are uncomfortable with calling out any self-styled Marxist for their authoritarianism. You’d have thought we’d have learned to be more careful. But no; what they refused to accept was that every time he unleashed his anti-Western rhetoric against Blair or Bush he was merely branching out his own doublespeak against internal opponents whom he always banished as “imperialist spies”. This was no surprise, of course: persistent demonisation of anything American never stopped him turning the country into his largest national oil client.
The sad story is that Chavez did improve Venezuela for a lot of ordinary people, and their indulgence of the man is therefore hardly all in delusion: the country saw advances along poverty lines and he went some extraordinary lengths to fabricate his revolutionary ideology, but always with the noise to ensure it turned into votes. And yet while this was going on he was buying the votes of big businesses and putting down local strikes: in 2002, 19,000 employees of the oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. went on strike to protest Chavez’ management changes. In response, the government fired them all and replaced them with foreign workers, pensioners and the army.
Chavez befriended the oppressed to oppress them even more.
Here is Dobson giving a brief summary of his book:
With the 70,000 lives lost are countless more made unbearable.
It’s a good job we oil-sucking imperialists aren’t involved, isn’t it?