(originally posted March 7th, 2013)
Something of a civil war has broken out recently on the left regarding Hugo Chavez’s death, and not of the general “my love of [far leftist leader] is more informed than yours” variety. See, until recently it was rare to hear progressives criticize Hugo Chavez - if we were talking about him at all, we were speaking admiringly about him, but most of us probably just didn’t care that much. Venezuela has oil and all but our national priorities have been focused elsewhere for some time. In the face of Chavez’s death, however, a school of leftists that is harshly critical of his administration has come out of the woodwork. Most notably, ThinkProgress.org published a much-forwarded post on Tuesday titled “Why Democrats Shouldn’t Eulogize Hugo Chavez.” It charges the late Venezuelan leader with being the accidental beneficiary of good timing on the economic front and an anti-Semite on the social front; a view quite at odds with that of the other leftist media like The Nation, who wasted no time publishing a laudatory piece about his legacy.
It’s no surprise that Chavez had a reputation as a Castro-loving wingnut on the right. We’re talking about a man who famously called George W. Bush “the devil” during a speech at the UN. (Ironic, seeing as how that is now widely considered to be true even among Republicans.) The coterie of Chavez-haters on left that has emerged in the last few days, however, is frustrating. Many of them seem to largely misunderstand the massive political obstacles faced by Latin American nations. From reading some of what’s floating around the internet, one could infer that American leftists believe that any country daring to have nationalist revolution should become some sort of unreasonably awesome socialist utopia. Perhaps this is just us projecting - we seem to be living in the opposite of a utopia ourselves - but it’s a silly notion nonetheless.
The fact of the matter is that in memorializing Chavez we are not memorializing any of his specific domestic policies, his friendship with Ahmadinejad, or any of the many short-sighted things a man operating a cult-of-personality-based government is bound to say and do. What we are memorializing is resistance, specifically resistance to the long-term US economic imperialism that has dominated the region. Also we’re memorializing the fact that he had a weekly TV show called “Hello, President” in which he sings. We here at BTL can’t stress enough that more world leaders need to be doing this.
Ultimately, picking apart Chavez’s time in office without respecting the broad strokes of his leadership is foolish. To fairly size up any Latin American leader, we need to fully respect what being a citizen of Latin America means. It’s a region that the United States has economically dominated since the late 1800s. In the US we can talk about wanting other countries to become democracies, but it’s widely acknowledged that what we mean by democracy is not “citizens voting for their leaders,” it’s “free-market economy.” In American political discourse, freedom and free-market are synonymous. And if not that, it at least means voting for the candidate that we want. (Remember how we wanted Egypt to elect a new leader democratically and now we aren’t so keen on who they elected and wonder if it was all a mistake?) It’s not about democracy, it’s about electing leaders who can do our bidding…and about money. In fact, it’s mostly about money. Scratch everything else we said.
It was not Chavez’s authoritarian style of governance that made the US a foe. We, after all, have been historically happy to prop up authoritarian dictators all over Latin America to protect our oil, fruit companies, rum distilleries, sugar production, and other economic interests. This, not socialism, is how Cubans became the enemy, how Chile’s leftist democratically elected president wound up being overthrown by a US-backed military coup on that other 9/11, and how gross human rights violations were carried out by military governments in Argentina and Brazil for decades without our intervention. The first thing Chavez-critical leftists have to admit is that our interest in Latin America is money first, not democracy, and revolution has historically been the only way to combat the US’s heavyhandedness. The only countries in Latin America whose major industries are locally owned and whose profits have been reinvested in the people, after all, are Cuba and Venezuela. Sure, the Chavez form of Socialism was imperfect, but we can’t deny that he took the country’s immense oil wealth and put it back into programs mostly benefiting the poor.
When we memorialize Hugo Chavez on the left, we have to remember that he was not hated by the US as a corrupt despot committing human rights violations up and down Venezuela. Venezuela had something in the ballpark of 11 political prisoners, which is not exactly mass-murder territory and puts even the US to shame. Chavez was hated because his socialist principles compromised our economic interests in the region. We saw the writing on the wall long before he nationalized the oil industry in 2007, and Venezuela is America’s fourth largest crude oil supplier. (Just for some context, 75% of the world’s oil industry is nationally-owned, and Chavez may have given the nation a majority stake in every oil company drilling in Venezuela, but he didn’t kick the foreign companies out entirely. They maintained a 40% stake and continue to produce there and make a profit.)
Still, though Chavez may have been bombastic (as well as capable of a scathing quip or two about the US’s leadership), he wasn’t stupid and, despite what Marco Rubio would have you believe, he enjoyed broad public support in Venezuela. If we’re to love democracy so much, should we not acknowledge and respect that Chavez recently won re-election with an overwhelming majority? And if we’re to really want to foster new relationships in the region, might it be folly to use such vitriolic language about him after his death?
This is a consideration to make not just in respect to our relationship to Venezuela. Chavez’ example sparked mini revolutions across the region - much of South America moved far left after he was elected, from Brazil to Argentina to Uraguay and beyond. Some of those leaders were more palatable to the US, like leftist president Lula of Brazil, but most were equally loyal to Chavez, refusing to buck to the US’s demonization of him. Chavez helped create a powerful alliance between the major players in the region, all of whom agreed that the previous economic development models the west had imposed were exploitive and unsuccessful. For internationally-engaged leftists, this is a powerful example and an important legacy.
All of this is by way of saying that those of us on the left would be remiss not to celebrate the example left by Chavez. Latin Americans deserve the right to self-determination and Chavez created a powerful example of how a country could do just that. Sure he forged unsavory alliances abroad, among other things that made him easy to hate, but the US should know from experience that this is what happens when we isolate nationalist regimes in Latin America. Fidel Castro, after all, ended up in the pocket of the Soviet Union after we turned him away. In this hemisphere, the ball is always in our court.
Also, beyond all this, the man is dead for God’s sake. Should we ultimately judge him fairly based on all of the things he’s done and stood for? Sure. Should we dismiss his contributions to Latin America and Venezuela’s poor just because of a set of oddly specific criticism? No. George W. Bush may ultimately be remembered as the devil when he dies (as accurately predicted by one Hugo Chavez), but we’ll also probably remember the great things he did for PEPFAR. Leftists know better than anybody that we can’t have utopia, but we’d be remiss to not memorialize Chavez for what he at least attempted to do for the poor on his nation, and for what he stood for as a leader in the region.
Plus, when someone says awesome stuff like this, he deserves some respect:
“I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet.”
On Condoleeza Rice:
“Don’t mess with me, Condoleezza. Don’t mess with me, girl,”
On American Leadership:
“if the climate was a bank, [the United States] would already have saved it.”
On George W. Bush:
“He has emotional problems. We need a new American president.”