December 19, 2002

A plausible defense of the lunatic's legacy...

As I talk about Venezuela with people abroad, some variation on it always comes up sooner or later. "Come on, Chávez can't be all bad...he must have some redeeming qualities, right?" It's usually an awkward moment, cuz I really can't think of any, so I end up coming accross as a total opposition zealot. Sometimes, if I'm pushed, I'll say something like "well, since he came to power people are definitely much more aware of themselves as citizens, as political beings with political rights who can have an impact on society if they just organize and act. When I was growing up, the level of political apathy and cynicism here was alarming - kind of like in the U.S. now. That, thank god, is over." It's not much of a compliment, of course, but it's something.

So I was both surprised and relieved to see that that's the angle at the center of the the article on Venezuela in the current issue of Mother Jones. Surprised because I haven't seen any other foreign journalists tackle the story from this angle before. Relieved because, well, most foreign lefties get Chávez catastrophically wrong, mangling the facts, putting an aggressively tendentious spin on events, and often just buying into the government's twisted PR line hook, line and sinker. And that's a temptation the story wisely avoids.

MJ's Barry Lynn desserves real praise for his piece, which is well researched and pretty fair. He makes a few minor mistakes, and I would certainly argue with much of what he writes. But overall, he's honest, thorough, and sane. He avoids the pitfalls inherent in trying to lionize Hugo Chavez the man by focusing instead in the effects his government has had on how poor Venezuelans relate to politics, and that's a much welcome change in focus. In fact, after four years living through el comandante's rein of error and reading dozens of chavista tracts, Lynn's piece is probably the best defense of chavismo I've ever read.

Of course, he does make some questionable arguments. I think he makes too much of the exclusionary aspects of the old regime, for one thing. Before Chávez Venezuela was a buddy system, for sure, but it was never the closed oligarchy of, say, Colombia. The country was never close to a meritocracy, but there was certainly social mobility - much more than in most of the region. Many of the old regime's big wigs came from poor peasant families. The last two presidential candidates of Acción Democrática, the emblematic political party of the old regime, were both born poor: one of them was black and the other had a fourth grade education. And it was the old regime that brought Venezuela free universal education, and the free state-university system that opened the doors to the middle class to hundreds of thousands of people born into horrible poverty. Not that I would want to defend the old system - heavens no. God knows it was hideously corrupt and founded on a culture of cronyism. But it wasn't El Salvador, y'know.

Most of what irks about Lynn's piece is not so much what's in it as what's left out. You could read it and come away with the impression that the only reason anyone opposes Chávez is that we're a bunch of overprivileged whiners. And, y'know, granted: there's a good number of overprivileged whiners in the opposition, but it goes far beyond that. There's no way to understand the opposition movement here without knowing something about the president's appalling intolerance towards dissent, for instance, or his regime's thoroughgoing contempt for the legal system, or the way he's stacked every nominally independent state institution with cronies, etc., etc. etc. Lynn doesn't tell you about any of that. And it's too bad.

But these are nits, really, and overall Lynn should be praised for a fair, well-researched article that shines a spotlight on positive aspects of chavismo that critics (like myself) too often overlook.