Sunday, January 29, 2006

The man who wasn't there

In the latest Foreign Policy Magazine is an article on Hugo Chávez titled "Hugo Boss." The basic idea is that Chávez is a contemporary version of the same old authoritarian tyrant (not my words).

The article begins with the premise of Chávez being a dictator, then runs through the usual litany of opposition arguments against Chávez, ignoring those facts and arguments that are simply inconvenient to the image of Chávez as autocrat. In the first introductory section of the essay, the words "tyrant", "authoritarian," "dictator" are used ten times before we get to any substance in the article. So, there you have it. Corrales, the author, writes, "Many experts, and certainly Chávez’s supporters, would not concede that Venezuela has become an autocracy. After all, Chávez wins votes, often with the help of the poor. That is the peculiarity of Chávez’s regime. He has virtually eliminated the contradiction between autocracy and political competitiveness."

Don't let appearances deceive, Corrales says. This really is a dictatorship in "democratic disguise" even if there aren't pogroms, purges, and mass deportations.
There are no mass executions or concentration camps in Venezuela. Civil society has not disappeared, as it did in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. There is no systematic, state-sponsored terror leaving scores of desaparecidos, as happened in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s. And there is certainly no efficiently repressive and meddlesome bureaucracy à la the Warsaw Pact. In fact, in Venezuela, one can still find an active and vociferous opposition, elections, a feisty press, and a vibrant and organized civil society. Venezuela, in other words, appears almost democratic.
So what's the problem? First, Chávez changed the constitution so that a simple majority of congress can pass legislation rather than the previous two-thirds. This mattered when his party had only a simple majority in congress. It doesn't any more. Corrales doesn't deal with the reasons for this, but this is what he has to say: "Chávez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power."
Chávez thus controls the legislature, the Supreme Court, two armed forces, the only important source of state revenue, and the institution that monitors electoral rules. As if that weren’t enough, a new media law allows the state to supervise media content, and a revised criminal code permits the state to imprison any citizen for showing “disrespect” toward government officials. By compiling and posting on the Internet lists of voters and their political tendencies—including whether they signed a petition for a recall referendum in 2004—Venezuela has achieved reverse accountability. The state is watching and punishing citizens for political actions it disapproves of rather than the other way around. If democracy requires checks on the power of incumbents, Venezuela doesn’t come close.
Furthermore, he has practiced a politics of polarization. And so on. I don't have the patience to continue this. But read the article. It is a standard treatise of the Venezuelan political opposition. That standard treatise lays claim to a few basic notions whose truth is is disputable. For one thing, the reason Chávez has complete control of the government has as much to do with the tactics of the political opposition, perhaps more so, than anything else. They boycotted the last elections and this boycott was led by the media (so much for total control over the media). The abstention rate was high. The result was a sweep of all the congressional seats by pro-Chávez candidates. Yes, he has total control over the branches of government. The opposition gave it to him. Crying foul and accusing Chávez of authoritarian government is just a bit too politically twee. His reign is as orchestrated by the opposition as it is by "The Boss" himself. Corrales suggests that Chávez has such total control that he has somehow polarized politics in the country all by himself by creating a polar opposition as if they had never existed and had never run the country!

But, then, here's the conclusion of the article below. The same line of thought that leads countries to invade others in the name of democratization when it's actually liberalization they're after. The opposition in Venezuela does not care about democracy. History has shown this, and the presidency of Chávez is a result. He was, after all, elected. Note that writers such as Corrales imply that the poor, the majority of which are Chávez supporters, are poor, unthinking dupes.
Ultimately, all authoritarian regimes seek power by following the same principle. They raise society’s tolerance for state intervention. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British philosopher, offered some tips for accomplishing this goal. The more insecurity that citizens face—the closer they come to living in the brutish state of nature—the more they will welcome state power. Chávez may not have read Hobbes, but he understands Hobbesian thinking to perfection. He knows that citizens who see a world collapsing will appreciate state interventions. Chávez therefore has no incentive to address Venezuela’s assorted crises. Rather than mending the country’s catastrophic healthcare system, he opens a few military hospitals for selected patients and brings in Cuban doctors to run ad hoc clinics. Rather than addressing the economy’s lack of competitiveness, he offers subsidies and protection to economic agents in trouble. Rather than killing inflation, which is crucial to alleviating poverty, Chávez sets price controls and creates local grocery stores with subsidized prices. Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.
Yes. Now poor people can eat, go to school, have basic medical care, and often receive decent and safe housing. I've been to the clinics. They are not "ad hoc" and they are new additions to the poor ranchos, whereas previously poor Venezuelans had very little access to medical care and only outside of the ranchos. Yes, Cuba has sent doctors to staff the clinics and train Venezuelan workers. Cuban medicine is famous for its competence and skill. The clinics are clean and modern.

Most importantly for Corrales and for the monied class of the opposition, however, is their concern about property rights. Who owns property? The poor?

Look, Chávez is an interesting and complex character as a man and as a phenomenon in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America. There are any number of ways to describe him and the phenomenon. The upper class opposition version is just that - one version among many. It also happens to be the most common version in obnoxious publications such as Foreign Policy Magazine (who goes to Davos or assembles the richest fifty people in the world when it wants to measure the pulse of the planet). It is the most common view from the North. It's an oversimplified one and US policy is doomed to failure if it continues to take oversimplistic assessments as the basis for foreign policy and its use of violence, whether military or economic.

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