Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Hugo Chávez

After reading a lot of misguided criticism of Hugo Chávez I am feeling the temptation to write a full-throated defense of the Venezuelan presidente. I'm going to do my best to resist that temptation since I'm not an expert on Venezuela. But it does seem like this is one of those moments where the U.S. media is really missing out on a key part of the story.

Many of the media reports of Chávez's legacy pay lip service to his popularity and his programs to help the poor, but then segue to vaguer criticisms about the economy, or start quoting political scientists about how Chávez is still bad even thought he allowed fair elections. The platonic ideal of this type of criticism has to be this sentence from a 2007 NYT op-ed by Roger Cohen:
"Certainly, the oil money Chávez has plowed into poor neighborhoods (at the expense of an oil industry suffering chronic underinvestment) has reduced poverty. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America said last year that the extreme poverty rate had fallen to 9.9 percent from 15.9 percent."
To be sure, he may have reduced extreme poverty by almost half, but won't someone please think of the oil industry? Bloomberg makes the same rhetorical move in this article. The point is not that these criticisms of Chávez aren't valid (maybe some are, maybe some aren't), but rather that poverty reduction and political inclusion are really, really big deals. All the rest is a second-order correction.

There is tremendous, widespread and deeply-rooted poverty in Latin America. We see it here in Nicaragua every day and I can only imagine that one would see similar scenes in Venezuela. For centuries most Latin American countries were ruled by a thin crust of elites, and no one in power really ever gave a damn about the poor. Not enough of a damn to matter, anyway.

From time to time, the poor would organize themselves into peasant movements or unions or political parties. Very often this would provoke a violent reaction from the local elites, or from the U.S. who spent much of the 20th century "intervening" in one Latin country or another. Occasionally the violence against the poor would reach shocking levels, such as in El Salvador in the '80s. It seems likely that the U.S. had a least some involvement in the failed coup against Chávez in 2002. It's hard not to see that as merely the latest in a long line of shameful U.S. adventures down south.

But Hugo Chávez did give a damn about the poor. Now you may say he cared even more about his own personal power and maybe he used populism as a tool and maybe he was a corrupt bastard to top it all off. Probably all true. But it wasn't all just talk and promises. He actually did divert the gusher of oil money in a direction it doesn't usually flow (including here to Nicaragua), and even more important, he took the people seriously and invited them to become a powerful force in Venezuela. That matters, and explains quite a bit about his enduring popularity in Venezuela. But of course, you won't read too many testimonials from poor Venezuelans in the U.S. press. Take a minute to peruse Andrew Sullivan's round-up of reactions to Chávez's death, here and here, and try to find those voices.

Still, my support is merely half-throated because I'm still uncomfortable with the way movements for social change tend to latch onto charismatic men. My unease with Chávez is similar to my unease with his good friend, Daniel Ortega, and other self-appointed protectors of the revolution. I love their policies but I worry about their politics. Revolutionary idealism has this way of curdling into power for its own sake.

Chávez's detractors are not wrong to care about the health of democratic institutions like a free press, fair elections, a stable constitution, an independent judiciary. We gringos tend to place a lot of faith in institutions because we have had decent luck with ours (more or less). But the corruption of democracy didn't start with Chávez, and by including more Venezuelans in the political process may just help bring the day closer when we have social justice and robust democracy at the same time. Perhaps it's worth remembering that the social change in Venezuela was and is bigger than its presidente, and is continuing still.

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