Thursday, 7 March 2013
Last thoughts on Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999... I was fourteen years old, he didn't mean much to me. At the age of fifteen I got the internet, and by the age of sixteen I was getting home from school each day to read world news and find out where global revolution was waiting to kick off. Capitalism was my enemy, socialism my mantra, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro my heroes; I pretty much spoke in these terms, and I certainly thought in these terms. You can probably guess, therefore, what I thought of the socialist Hugo Chavez, especially after the CIA-backed coup that failed to oust his democratically elected government in 2002.
Slowly, however, I stopped caring about Hugo Chavez. I still cared about politics, but I started to reach an age at which I valued knowledge about events more directly relevant to me, and about issues I was in a position to be better-informed upon. In 2004 I went to university, where a large population of identikit radicals meant all I wanted was to distance myself from the emblems of socialism. I also became disinterested in the pastime of speaking up for a leader or regime in which I wasn't qualified to have an informed opinion, and in which - the media led me to believe - I might be compromising many of my values by endorsing. Bob Dylan's My Back Pages sum-up what happened to me, "Equality, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow, Ahh but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now"
Over the last few years I've warmed back towards Chavez, and although I don't like to think myself too susceptible to as much, the fact that he just died probably has something to do with the things I'm thinking right now. The most insightful articles I read on him recently were this piece, in the New Statesman, and a piece by Owen Jones for The Independent, which more than anything made clear that all international observers had ruled Chavez's recent election victory to be transparent and legitimate, despite some of the inferences western media might have made.
I'm not 16 any longer... I'm not now going to say that Chavez was a faultless leader, he clearly wasn't, but such a thing doesn't exist anyway. More than anything, his leadership and the criticism it attracted is useful in bringing out the double-standards of western governments and their advocates. As one person noted on Twitter... "Why is it always 'socialist president, Hugo Chavez' but never 'Capitalist Prime Minister, David Cameron'?"
This is the bottom line in the case against Hugo Chavez - that he was a deviant, and had he not been around, then no doubt Morales in Bolivia or Lula in Brazil would have become the go-to fall guy for ideas of loony Latin socialism. Where he was not criticised for human rights violations, Chavez was accused of mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy, particular attention being given to reliance on oil. Somehow we manage to get over the human rights-violating, oil dependency of the Arabian peninsular, we don't get our knickers in a twist that the Chinese are reliant on cheap exports, the German economy could be criticised for reliance on manufacturing exports, the British should certainly be more troubled about reliance on financial services, and until it was too late, nobody raised any concerns about the construction-reliance of the Spanish economy. Chavez's crime was not an unbalanced economy so much as using an unbalanced economy towards a socialist project.
A common tack from our almost ubiquitously centre-right political class is that the world is not perfect. We must resort to many expedients (48 hour detention, state secrets acts, drone-strikes, stop-and-search profiling, paying for bankers' bonuses, kettling protests, ad infinitum) because we cannot be soft on crime, immigration, the causes of recession, terrorism, anti-social behaviour (etc. etc.) Our liberties as a society are frequently flouted, and where politicians take the time to justify as much, they will do so with answers that boil down to the idea that ugly reality faces tough decisions. Where neoliberalism is a society's end-goal, realpolitik is justifiable, where socialism - or any form of wealth redistribution - is the guiding principle, realpolitik becomes inexcusable, brutal, cynical. This is the crux of why Chavez was painted as he was, and this is why equally severe human rights violations around the world do not raise the same eyebrows of most politicians or media. Many suggest Chavez was a tyrant for not renewing the license of a private TV station that openly encouraged insurrection against him... as if our own governments would sit idly by in a freedom of speech love-in, while a national TV station encouraged people onto the streets to overthrow them. Many of the same voices who think Chavez a repressive autocrat manage to remain very calm about the fact that western powers have, for over a decade now, incarcerated hundreds of men in the Caribbean, on no grounds more strenuous than their being bearded and happening to have been in the Hindu Kush circa 2001.
Chavez was no doubt flawed, but to his opponents his biggest crime was to kick against neoliberal norms, and the institutions in which those norms are represented. We are all aware the world is not perfect, which is why a left-wing leader like Chavez was no saint; it is that he was expected to have been that is most in need of questioning here. For those who will continue to paint Chavez as tyrant, or at least as autocrat, they must also be asked to explain the crowds in Caracas that have mourned his passing. They should ask themselves what western leader would receive such adoration, and if Chavez was able to provoke as much, he must have been doing something right.
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