Adiós Presidente!

Hugo ChávezHugo Chávez was perhaps the most influential figure in Latin American politics over the past twenty years. Not only did he have an immeasurable impact on his own country–to the point of changing its name, from the “Republic of Venezuela” to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” He was also the first of the left-wing presidents that comprise the so-called “left turns” in the region. And to the end, nationally and internationally alike, he was no doubt the most divisive of figures. In the reaction to his death we see the intense popularity that he enjoyed among significant sections of the Venezuelan people, as well as the inspirational role he played for many as a standard-bearer for a fairer alternative to neoliberalism and US supremacy. But we also see Venezuelans celebrating his demise (albeit less openly in Caracas than at a distance, in Miami) and a more mainstream assessment of his legacy that stresses ambivalence at best if not outright hostility to Chávez’s excesses and idiosyncracies.

If nothing else, the Venezuelan President was also the most colourful figure we have seen in Latin America for a good long while. Literally as well as figuratively: in his bright red beret or his jumpsuits the vibrant shades of the Venezuelan flag, as well as in his political invective or his apparently impulsive gestures and mischievous antics. What other world leader would, from the UN rostrum in New York, describe the sitting US President (George W Bush) in these terms: “Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.” Or who else would leap at the chance of an international summit to present the subsequent US Commander in Chief (Barack Obama) with a copy of that classic leftist history, Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America? Chávez was exuberant, unpredictable, tireless, and both charming and annoying in equal measure. As Lula puts it in a fascinating homage, “he didn’t allow people to fall asleep.” Many of us, however, like a quiet life and King Juan Carlos of Spain surely spoke for many when he asked in frustration: “Why don’t you shut up?” But where the King is now enmeshed in scandal as the Spanish monarchy’s ratings plummet, Chávez seems to have had the last laugh, with even former foes grudgingly paying him their respects.

The Venezuelan opposition hated and despised Chávez. They barely understood why anyone would vote for him–which is one reason why he beat them soundly in every election he fought. Despite coming late to the democracy game–famously, he came to public prominence with an attempted coup d’état in 1992–Chávez quickly got the hang of it. For all the criticisms that he was some kind of autocrat, it’s best to see his continual efforts at mobilization (of his base) and antagonism (of his opponents) as part of a permanent democratic campaign. Indeed, far from the anti-politics of either technocratic neoliberalism or traditional authoritarianism, Chávez is perhaps best understood as the most consummate of politicians. He thrived on politics, in its purest forms: he was energized by its spirit of antagonism; he separated friends from enemies and sought to expand the ranks of both. The middle classes who saw him as such a threat to their livelihoods took the bait all too easily. They’ll find they miss him.

For if anything unites the rancourous Venezuelan opposition–and little does–it is their visceral distaste for the Comandante. Now that their bête noir is gone, they’ll have to face up to the fact that chavismo without Chávez is a little more complicated, and perhaps a little more robust, than they have assumed.

More soon…


The trailer for El señor Presidente, a film released late last year in Venezuela, based on the novel by Miguel Angel Asturias…

Asturias’s novel was set at the turn of the twentieth century, and loosely based on the regime of the Guatemalan dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera.

But this film is made by RCTV, the same television channel whose license was not renewed by Hugo Chávez, amid much international controversy. (Here are two takes on the issue: from The Washington Post and from I wonder if they have anything in mind as they release this adaptation of the classic novel by the Guatemalan Nobel laureate?

See also Anna Marie de la Fuente’s “Network Tries Topical Title”, from Variety.


Dick CheneyI’ve been surprised that in Peru they haven’t made more of Dick Cheney’s recent gaffe. The US Vice-President apparently confused Peru with Venezuela, suggesting that Hugo Chávez was President of the former rather than the latter. But Peruvian friends I’ve talked to weren’t even aware of the incident.

Typically enough, Chávez himself has capitalized on the confusion. “Those who govern the United States are a bunch of ignorant fools,” he declared. “They don’t know where Venezuela is, nor do they know where Peru is.” (Via LANR.)

The story can be read as a simple slip of the tongue, or perhaps as typical of the myopia of an administration run by a man who famously had never left the USA before he became President, and who as presidential candidate was unable to name the leader of Pakistan.

More interestingly, however, the mistake may reveal just how little attention the US is currently paying to Latin America. After all, if Cheney had any reason to have the region on his mind, one would have thought that Chávez’s belligerent rhetoric should have put Venezuela on the Vice-President’s mental map.

Moreover, the particular confusion is also revealing. Rather than confusing Chávez with any of the other Latin American leftists who have won office in recent years–Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Brazil’s Lula, for instance–Cheney seems to find it difficult to distinguish him even from Alan García, a president who came to office by fending off a challenge from the Left. Indeed, during the Peruvian campaign Chávez actively (and controversially) voiced his support for the candidacy of García’s rival, Ollanta Humala.

Cheney’s faux pas, then, seems to indicate not only that the much-heralded distinction between “social democratic” and “populist” lefts has hardly made much impact inside the Beltway. It also suggests that when it comes to Latin America, the Bush Administration doesn’t even concern itself overly with the distinction between Left and Right. It’s all, as they would say down here, la misma mierda.

One is tempted to feel slightly sorry for poor Hugo. For all the man’s best efforts, he still seems unable to attract much attention from Cheney et. al. Though on the other hand, the lesson he might draw is that he really can do what he wants: the US simply won’t notice.

Crossposted to Left Turns?.


The Wednesday quotation, Part VII: Chávez’s government by television.

Welcome to Aló Presidente!, a television chatshow like no other. Sunday’s edition, No 295, was the longest yet, a marathon of politics and showmanship, and for many proof that Venezuela has become a country governed largely through television. There are cabinet meetings, national assembly debates and committee hearings in the offices of state in central Caracas, but the most emphatic exercise of power resides in the weekly show hosted by the president. This is where Mr Chávez engages with the masses, announces policies, muses on his political philosophy, and signals the next step in his self-described socialist revolution.

“Chávez governs from Aló Presidente. It is on this show that ministers find out if they have been fired or hired; it is here where mayors and governors are reprimanded for anything they have done wrong,” said Arturo Serrano, a political scientist at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. (Rory Carroll “Government by TV: Chávez sets 8-hour record”. The Guardian 25 September, 2007)


Hugo Chávez is in the news again, now thanks to Pat Robertson’s outrageous call for his assassination. The Venezuelan president is no stranger to the headlines, of course, nor does he shirk them. He takes on his (many and vociferous) opponents directly and publicly, whether by baiting the so-called “escuálidos” who are his domestic opposition, or by taking on the US government, most recently accusing DEA agents of international espionage.

I’ve never been a great fan of Chávez. His personalist style is deeply problematic. In typical populist manner, he deploys his charisma to conjure away the fact of state domination. I have been ambivalent about his regime despite recognizing that anti-chavista forces are far more unsavory. I remember asking a friend, who was at the time editor at the excellent Caracas-based Nueva Sociedad, whether the military might come to power if Chávez were overthrown. “Ah, but the military is already in power,” was his response.

And it’s true that Chávez is an ex-paratrooper, who came to attention first as head of an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. Also, if the 2002 effort to unseat him failed in part because of the multitudinous uprising that ensued, another reason was the loyalty shown by the military rank and file, most of whom still see him as one of them.

Ironically, in that he depends so much on television to construct and maintain his popular appeal, complete with his own talk show, Aló Presidente, and given his direct, over-dramatic, evangelical style, Chávez is in some ways the mirror image of his latest critic, the tele-evangelist Robertson. And Chávez’s tele-populism undoubtedly depends upon and engenders the power of popular belief.

But is there anything more to chavismo than its faith in a leader?

I was (quite by accident) in Venezuela during the 2002 coup and counter-coup. It was an extraordinary week. And one thing was obvious: Chávez’s supporters, who constitute, as has now been repeatedly demonstrated, the majority of the population, expected a lot of his government; but it had yet to deliver. The regime had not made much of a difference to Venezuela’s poor. It was long on rhetoric, but short on results. It had proposed a number of creative and controversial foreign policy initiatives (from seeking to resuscitate and reorient OPEC to improving links with Cuba), but had been mostly on the defensive domestically.

That may now be changing. The fact that populism still figures the people as expectant (and so dependent) on a power alien to them remains its great limitation. But at least the people are no longer simply waiting. And the reforms that the government is effecting, in the wake of the counter-coup, suggest further change may be on its way. In the space of a few months, Venezuela has come to attention for its empowerment of workers on the shop floor, its education and health programs, and its ambitious land reform initiative.

One could draw a contrast with the government over which Brazil’s Lula presides. Unlike Chávez, Lula has long been the darling of the international left. His Workers’ Party grew out of struggles against military repression in the 1970s and 1980s, his personal biography is compelling, he has made all the right noises in terms of regional solidarity, and has hosted and encouraged the Porto Alegre gatherings of the World Social Forum. But, also unlike Chávez, his government has become mired in a corruption scandal that, if it doesn’t reach to the very top, goes pretty close to it. Meanwhile, Lula’s much vaunted social programs, particularly the “Zero Hunger” program, have so far proved insubstantial and ineffectual. And his economic policies have been a continuation of the neoliberal orthodoxy already in place, which have kept the markets happy but done little to reduce his country’s appalling wealth and income inequalities.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has two useful articles detailing how the mess that Lula finds himself in contrasts with Chávez’s status as Latin America’s rising superstar.

I’ve always found it strange that Venezuela, despite its strategic importance and economic weight, has commanded so little attention outside its borders. (The number of prominent Latin Americanists with expertise on the country can be counted on the fingers of one mutilated hand, compared to the myriads studying, say, Argentina, Mexico, or Peru.) It’s time for us to take a little more notice. A good place to start is And Gregory Wilpert, as evidenced in articles such as this one, has for some time been among the more astute commentators on the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

“We are the expression of the multitude”, declare Venezuela’s community media association. Well, maybe. Chávez continues to hog the headlines, but there may indeed be something rather interesting going on within the organizations that have been established under his regime’s aegis, or in parallel with the regime itself.