Keeping Tabs on the Revolution: Chávez’s Vision of Venezuela

Late Monday night, we were browsing the pages of BoingBoing (a place we generally go to avoid politics) when we came across this post from Guido David Núñez-Mujica, a biology student from Merída, Venezuela:

“On Saturday, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez decreed that February the 2nd, the anniversary of his ascent to [the] presidency, would be a national holiday.

“The government said that it would enforce the holiday and close and fine any open store. They are doing that and officers from the equivalent of the IRS, the SENIAT, are closing many stores that opened today. The country is paralyzed, no children at school, no classes at the universities, just because [of] the selfish desires of a tyrant who said two days ago that he intends to be in power until 2049 and that there would be war if the opposition wins.”

Núñez-Mujica continues:

“I am sick of this, and I am even sicker that many of my fellow liberals think that this crap is the answer to our problems.”

The writer raises an interesting point: while the policies of presidente-for-life Hugo Chávez have been roundly condemned from across the political spectrum as repressive and anti-democratic, Chávez still boasts a mysterious appeal among lefties who consider him the Great Red Hope for socialism. On a surface level, this makes sense. During his ten-year stint in office (give or take time off for a coup-imposed vacation), Chávez has instituted a series of “Bolívarian missions” to reduce poverty and increase literacy, introduced a sweeping land redistribution program, significantly reduced unemployment levels, and — to the delight of many — openly railed against Bush administration policies. Many on the left have cast Chávez as a harbinger of social justice, an antidote to US imperialism, and, perhaps most perniciously, the victim of a media establishment happy to unfairly disparage him in the interests of capitalism.

These views, however sympathetic and well-intentioned, are dangerously off-base. Throughout his tenure as president, Chávez has moved ever closer toward the classic model of Latin American populism, brutally silencing voices of dissent in government, nationalizing oil and big business within Venezuela, and closing media outlets that refuse to share his views. He has abolished term limits, squashed unions, and in the past several weeks, sanctioned the use of tear gas against growing numbers of student protesters. In keeping with his vision, laws are liable to change on a whim, and under the current economic policy, rigid price caps have induced food shortages and transformed basic amenities, like milk and toilet paper, into luxuries. Finally, while Chávez’s micro-lending programs have won him the approval of the working classes, economists warn that they’re treacherously unstable. While further strengthening the government, such initiatives fail to create the kind of lasting infrastructure that can support a country once the petro-dollars run dry.

In 2007, while on a tour of Caracas to promote her new book, Nation writer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl noted these trends, outlining a major danger of the “revolution”:

“Along with this regression from the political ideal — the Constitution — goes the possibility that economic policies, formulated by the government, will circumscribe political action by the citizens, controlling them not with overt or covert violence, as happens in most revolutions that start rigidifying, but with money.”

While many (us included) would agree that socialism is an attractive means of combating the entrenched poverty and institutionalized exploitation that afflict many Latin American countries, Chávez’s presidency has failed to live up to his own professed principles. He has tendered a political bait-and-switch, sustaining a revolution on promises of progress and temporary appeasements, while fashioning a system largely designed to consolidate his own power. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether workers of the world still need to unite, it remains vitally important to take off our rose-colored glasses and be as critical of any new establishment as we were of the old.