Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Live With Hugo Chavez: Where Will This End?

Hugo Chavez is back in the news for trying, again, to change Venezuela's constitution in order to become in law the dictator he plays on television.

The opposition to Chavez in Venezuela, a fractured gathering at best, made gains in the elections held this month. Chavez is brushing aside the results of this de facto referendum and forging ahead with his plan to limit democracy in Venezuela to the kind of cosmetic voting that so many dictators indulge in for propaganda's sake. Chavez takes propaganda so seriously, one might be forgiven for thinking of his career as a single, unending exercise in propaganda for its own sake. This would be amusing if he didn't sit atop a crucial supply of fuel and openly fete Russia and Iran, loudly inviting Medvedev and Ahmadinijad to brainstorm with him on ways to diminish the United States. At least he hasn't had been photographed frolicking in the waves with Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il. Yet.

"Hello, President", his 700 club-style rant-athon, broadcast live for hours on end every Sunday has seen him impulsively shame-and-sack his revolving door cabinet, needlessly insult journalists domestic and foreign (including a correspondent from the Guardian UK), send troops to the border with Columbia because its legitimate government killed a drug-running rebel leader, and regularly features his singing. He takes questions, but if there is any hint of criticism in the query he brutally leads the live audience in denouncing the speaker as an enemy agent. He calls his televised government a revolution and claims his role-model is Fidel Castro, but stylistically he seems to have more in common with Jimmy Swaggart.

Like Castro, throughout Hugo Chavez's career he has been able to persuade a substantial number of people, both within Venezuela and internationally, that he is a man with good ideas. Say whatever you want about him, the argument for him goes, but he proudly governs in the name of the neediest in his society and has been tireless in waging his revolution against the kleptocratic establishment that failed Venezuela for decades. Moreover, at a time when the Bush administration seemed capable of anything, Chavez seemed to speak for people all over the world who wanted an end to American Hegemony.

Of course, apart from praising Noam Chomsky at the United Nations, (inexplicably suggesting the tireless MIT professor was dead) Chavez hasn't really done anything to end American hegemony. In attempting to push the unipolar advantage, the Bush administration did more to damage American Hegemony than anything Chavez could have done. And despite an oil boom that saw Venezuela's heavy, unpalatable crude soar in price, giving Chavez the ability to fund a raft of ambitious socialist projects all over South America and the Caribbean, the needy people of Venezuela are as needy as ever. There is some evidence that he is bowing to international pressure to back away from his high-profile support for the revolution in Columbia. Though it is troubling that Chavez is buying millions of rifles from Russia to arm his supporters in preparation for a fantasy invasion we will never launch, the purchase of second-hand naval vessels from the Kremlin is more stagecraft that warcraft. Chavez won't cut off our oil supply. He is dependent on our dependence on him. He needs our hegemony as he needs the poverty of his supporters. Without these two realities he would not exist. Luckily for him, he can't do much about either.

On the most recent Frontline PBS documentary, Chavez is depicted as an unusually fortunate and media-savvy generalissimo. His supporters are quick to point out that Chavez was democratically elected, but this is a point that seems lost on Chavez himself.

(Thank you to Visions Americas for the image and the analysis of Hugo Chavez and the FARC)