Quico says: It's a question people seem to ask me a lot outside Venezuela, and it came up again the other night, in a conversation with an old and dear friend of mine:
"Now, I know you hate the guy, and probably for good reason...but if you had to pick out one achievement, one virtue in Hugo Chávez, what would it be?"
I've known my friend too long and respect him too much to fall back on the old, Teodoresque bromide about how Chávez put poverty at the top of the political agenda, yada yada yada. I'm sure there's something to that, but it feels like a cop-out at this oint. The mood was more reflexive than that, so I tried a more real riff.
"Chávez's real achievement," I said, draining the last of that bottle of wine, "the thing that sets him apart from any other charismatic leftie autocrat I can think of, is that he's put himself in the position he's in today without the massive use of state violence. It really is unprecedented, when you take the long view. Countries just don't get to where Venezuela is today without mass graves ...but we did."
"Think it through: Venezuela today is a society controlled from top to bottom, with practically no spaces left for meaningful independent political action, with a hyper-ideologized army and public administration responding unflinchingly to the orders of one man. The media? Neutered. The priests? Irrelevant. The bourgeoisie? Either cowed, fled or co-opted. The state's power? Virtually unchecked. And all this in a country that was a warts-and-all democracy as recently as a decade ago."
"It took Lenin a pile of bodies from here to Siam to get to this level of political control over Russia. Mugabe had 20,000 Ndebele bodies to bury before he had Zimbabwe by the cojones like Chávez has Venezuela. Tito's secret police had to keep shooting up people on 3 continents for decades to keep Yugoslavia nice and docile for forty years. That's what it takes, normally, to stamp your control over a country in the kind of total way Chávez has."
"But Chávez, what kind of body count does he really have? Juan Carlos Sánchez, from the Danilo Anderson case? Danilo himself? A dozen others, maybe, on the lower end of Avenida Baralt on 11A? And fifty more in jail? A disgrace, certainly, by the standards of a proper democracy...but measured against the kinds of deliriously murderous regimes Chávez loves to praise and lionize, almost embarrassingly little."
"Che Guevara had these many scalps under his belt within a week of the revolution taking Havana. Idi Amin, Khadafi, the Iranian mullahs, the Kims in North Korea these are rulers who pile up body counts and fill up prisons with a speed and efficiency Chávez both clearly admires and absolutely refuses to replicate. So far, anyway."
"And that's the real enigma, because to be sure Chávez's pantheon of leaders-to-be-emulated all have one thing in common: they're on an entirely different plane of murderousness than he is. That's the anomaly, man, the real headscratcher."
"A lot of it, I think, has to do with timing: the revolution's just moved much more slowly, much more gradually than any of the regimes I just mentioned. Classical dictatorships come in by force of arms and keep right on using those arms to maintain their control. Within a year or two, they've spilled all the blood they needed to spill to convince people not to fuck with them. And so people don't fuck with them. That's normal."
"What your normal dictator does in a year Chávez has done in ten. Ten long and miserable years, yes, but also ten years of a bark that far outstrips the bite."
"Maybe our problem is that we keep measuring him up against the standard of the normal democratic regime we'd like, rather than against the bar of the blood-soaked tyrannies he holds himself up against. Chávez has, to his own mind, made a lot of compromises over the last ten years, eaten a lot of shit to get the kind of control over Venezuelan society he has without a spasm of fratricidal violence."
"No other revolutionary that I can think of has been more willing to let opponents stay and grow rich under his watch, so long as they agreed to go-along and get-along. Khadafi had no Gustavo Cisneros, Idi Amin did not rule over a Blackberry boomlet, and Fidel certainly had no Pedro Torres Ciliberto. So the extension of political control here has gone hand in hand with the kind of softly-softly approach to 'class enemies' - in fact, if not in rhetoric - that, while shot through with insecurity, has also seen a huge number of bank accounts bulge very significantly."
"In a way, I think Chávez understands power better than almost any of his historical predecessors. More subtly, more finely. Chávez grasps that you can set up a society where even people who hate your guts get the message that they have no choice but to go along with what you say, and do go along with what you say, without having to shoot up the place until it looks like a Swiss cheese."
"And in that sense, if in no other, I think there really is something to the whole idea of 21st Century Socialism. In the 20th century, all left-wing tyrannies were baptized in rivers of blood. The first 21st century left-wing tyranny has dispensed with all that..."