May 24, 2013
CommentarySunday, March 10, 2013
After Chávez: a second chance for democracy in the region?
The problem with mass movements
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — A few weeks before Hugo Chávez was briefly overthrown in April 2002, my wife and I were in Caracas. I was president of the Inter-American Press Association and we hopped over to Venezuela from the Dominican Republic after the association’s mid-year meeting.
Three years into the Chávez presidency, the Venezuelan media were under pressure from the government.
Reporters and photographers from the traditional press who were assigned to cover Chávez rallies wore helmets and body armour because they were often beaten up. I hoped to meet the president so that I could respectfully express concern about the attacks on the press and emphasize the importance of a free press in a democratic system.
We held a forum for students in the biggest hall we could find. It was packed, with an overflow crowd outside the doors. But we could not persuade Chávez to meet us.
That was not surprising. The IAPA has never been popular with authoritarian governments. The left depicts the society that groups newspapers in the Americas — generally referred to by its initials in Spanish as la SIP — as a tool of US imperialism and the CIA. The right, particularly the 1976-84 Argentine military dictatorship, tends to be equally paranoid in believing that all journalists are lefties and that “international Jewry” controls the US media and IAPA.
We were in Caracas at what was to be a momentous time. In early 2002 Chávez was still seen, even by other Latin American leaders, as a somewhat comic figure. He reminded me of Cantinflas, the brilliant Mexican comedian, described by Charlie Chaplin, whom he resembled, as “the greatest comedian alive.” That impression camouflaged the real Chávez: the paratroop lieutenant colonel who led an attempted coup, spent two years in jail and, after his release, spent some time in Cuba and became a friend of Fidel Castro.
The US view at that time was that he was a bother, rather than a menace. He did not get into his stride with the now notorious verbal attacks on former president George Bush and diatribes against the United States until 2005. In Santo Domingo during the IAPA meeting. former president Bill Clinton told us that he had been discretely meeting and talking to President Chávez. But the new president did not appear to be very interested in Clinton’s suggestions on ways to use Venezuela’s fabulous oil wealth to build infrastructure, encourage production rather than consumption and develop a sound economic system that could — and should in a country that has greater oil reserves than Saudi Arabia — banish poverty for the foreseeable future.
On April 12, the die was cast. Chávez was momentarily overthrown in what must rate as the most bungled coup attempt in Latin American history. Pedro Carmona, who headed Venezuela’s umbrella group of chambers of commerce, was introduced to us as the man who could save the nation from el loco Chávez. My wife took one look at him and observed that the idea such an insignificant little man could replace Chávez was laughable. Carmona, as it turned out, saved Chávez. He was a puppet of the coupmakers, wealthy businessman who had initially backed Chávez and then turned against him. But the coup attempt mobilized a majority of Venezuelans in support of Chávez.
Carmona began by granting himself dictatorial powers, announcing the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court while suspending the Constitution. He was a dictator for a day and soon Chávez was back in power, stronger than ever. The opposition was totally discredited. It was Chávez’s “Bay of Pigs.” Like Fidel Castro’s defeat of the US-sponsored invasion of Cuba, Chávez’s moral victory over the coupmakers made him a national hero. It also gave him unbridled access to billions of dollars in oil revenue.
I have always thought that Venezuela’s oil has proved to be a curse, not a blessing. At an earlier SIP meeting in Venezuela, we met the late Arturo Uslar Pietri, Venezuela’s foresighted but sadly unheeded Grand Old Man of letters, politics and affairs of state. Since the thirties, Uslar Pietri had been urging that the country’s oil be used productively. He coined the phrase sembrar petróleo (sow or plant oil) to get across the idea that revenue from oil should be “sown back” into the economy through productive investment in agriculture and industry. Living off oil, he argued, was destructive. That then-revolutionary idea is widely accepted today, but has not been acted on by any of the governments over the past decades, least of all after 14 years under el comandante. Today, Venezuela has to rely on importation to cover 80 percent of the population’s food needs.
Uslar Pietri died on February 26, 2001 at the age of 94. He was never bamboozled by Chávez. Veteran Venezuela watcher Phil Gunson wrote in his obituary for The Guardian that Uslar described Chávez as “a man with a messianic view of himself. He thinks that just by being there he can solve our problems.” By then, said Gunson, Uslar Pietri believed Venezuela had completely lost its way. Gunson reports the old man saying: “I had hoped to grow old and die in a country beginning to have some sense of reality. But it is crazier than ever.” Gunson reported that “Chávez repaid the compliment by studiously ignoring the great man’s passing.
“At Uslar Pietri’s funeral, however,” wrote Gunson, “figures from Chávez’s government mingled with representatives of the discredited two-party system. Both sides had felt the lash of Uslar’s tongue, but none spoke of him with anything less than reverence. He had long since acquired a stature well above the mire of politics.”
I think that Chávez has dumped Venezuela in the mire of geopolitics by his embrace of the Iranian ayatollahs, his friendship with the late and unmourned Iraqi murderer Saddam Hussein (remember the drive that they took together around Baghdad in the mass murderer’s armour-plated Mercedes Benz?), ditto Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. The more unsavoury the better and the more anti-US, the more appealing to his and other closed minds (What would Bolívar say of his imitator?).
I would like to think that Chávez did something to improve the lot of the poor, but the statistics, like those trotted out by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in her speech to Congress, mix apples and oranges and the bells of St. Clement’s so that they merely indicate what the Red Queen, or whoever, wants them to say.
I would like to feel moved by the masses of people who took to the streets to Caracas to express their grief. But I have a problem with mass movements. Whenever I see a multitude thinking and acting alike in an exhibitionist manner, I can’t stop newsreels spinning in my mind:
- Those joyous crowds, with radiantly happy women and children swarming devotedly around Hitler.
- That dehumanized horde obediently adoring the vicious members of the Kim dynasty who keep the people of North Korea under the boots of their goose-stepping troops.
- A smiling pipe-smoking “Uncle Joe” Stalin looking down on a huge crowd in Red Square, superimposed on photographs of the Gulags.
- Chubby Chairman Mao urging his Red Guards to ill-treat and humiliate China’s intelligentsia.
The defence against this sort of thing happening again is true democracy, not the false democracy once practised by the “people’s democratic republics” of the Soviet Bloc and by authoritarian regimes in Latin America today.