Monday, May 08, 2006

The Resistable Rise of Hugo Chavez

Chavez proposes referendum on holding office until 2031:
"Speaking at a stadium packed with supporters in central Lara state, Chavez said he would hold a referendum to put the question of his remaining in office to Venezuelans if the opposition pulls out of upcoming presidential elections.
'I am going to ask you, all the people, if you agree with Chavez being president until 2031,' he said.
It was not clear if Chavez was talking about holding a legally binding vote to eliminate term limits or proposing a plebiscite."

Hugo Chavez is a burgeoning dictator, and if you're not convinced by his latest manuever, I'm not sure what evidence can convince you. I've argued with Robot and others about this before, but I doubt that anyone will say that this latest move and Chavez's attempts at restricting criticism of his government mean anything but a grab for personal, unaccountable power. It seems like many left-leaners want to support Chavez on the principle that the enemy of my enemy (Bush) is my friend. This inclination is increased into actual support by the fact that Chavez uses his country's oil wealth to help others: for instance, Chavez's reduction of the cost of heating oil in a deal with Massachusetts and his offer of oil for the victims of Katrina. Chavez is also active in helping Venezuela's neighbors through the liberal distribution of oil and profits from its sale--e.g. buying $2.5 billion worth of Argentine debt. Interestingly, it is always Chavez that seems to be the one who is giving these gifts, not the Venezuelan people, who could well use the money that Chavez is giving to citizens of other countries. The amount that Chavez's government has given out is not public, an interesting and somewhat frightening fact in itself.

So liberals should apply the same rhetorical filter to Chavez that they do to Bush and his cronies. If I supported the war in Iraq on the basis that it helped people, I acknowledged at the same time that it had other causes in terms of increasing Bush's domestic power and securing a base for cheap oil. We should do the same with Chavez--even if we agree with his support for the poor and needy, we should ask if there are multiple reasons for his actions. Something is going on here: Chavez is continuing to consolidate his power within Venezuela at the same time as he is increasing his and Venezuela's international power. The probability that he is committing all of these senseless acts of kindness out of the goodness of his heart is low, and such an enormous concentration of unmediated power in the hands of anyone is a threat in itself.

Chavez's increasing power seems dangerous. But I am not sure what we can do about it. The United States' huge demand for oil and supply shortages elsewhere will continue to increase the power of countries like Venezuela; our only reasonable hope is that these countries will not be led by dictators. Unfortunately, the huge profits from oil give Chavez the tools he needs to maintain his power. Because the amount of oil revenue that Chavez actually controls is not public, his use of the funds will remain unaccountable. The international community should demand more openness from Chavez, but only the Venezuelan people can hold Chavez accountable. Chavez faces reelection this year. It will be interesting to see how and if this reelection actually occurs. The Venezuelan people should not make the same errors of many before them.


Blogger amie said...


i couldn't agree with you more.
argentines think the guys nuts.
last week in a cab there was some news radio with clips of him ranting - even if you don't understand spanish, you should listen to some speeches - and the cab driver was like.
he's insane. he's like the president of iran he's insane.

interesting too now...b.c mercosur, the regional common "market" i've been studying down here for months...just offered venezuela a place in the union at the end of last year. funny how the new hot topic on every magazine, newspaper and taxista's lips in buenos aires is that mercosur is deteriorating rapidly.

just thought i'd share that.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Yes he is a burgeoning dictator. Yes is he is bad for U.S. "interests" (ie. easy, unrestricted access to oil). I just find it sickening that people start caring about a guy's domestic policies only when he's being hostile to us and our "interests." Chavez may have contempt for the procedural aspects of democracy, but he's an angel compared to some of our Saudi and Kazakhstani friends. Where are the posts on these countries' human rights abuses? The point is there need not be any, because if/when we get off this oil addiction, we won't need to persue these absurd policies of making friends with dictators, and enemies with demagogues.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

1. You're assuming that we shouldn't look out for our own interests in foreign policy. I've never made that argument, I think it is silly, and it is ridiculous to talk about foreign policy as if it should be wholly based on universalist ethics. I emphasize "wholly" because, like you, I think foreign policy can and should often be based on a moral understanding of a situation. But this moral understanding does not create support in a pluralistic capitalist democracy, so we will usually find that we are most able to act morally when our interests are threatened by immoral actions.

2. When you stop writing joke posts about Charles Taylor and college ethics codes, you can criticize me for not writing about Kazakhstan and Saudi. I write posts about things that interest me when I believe that I have something interesting to say on the matter. I found the new developments disturbing and interesting and so I wrote about them. I'm not sure what I could say that hasn't already been said about Saudi or Kazakhstan, but I'll keep looking for things to say about them. I look forward to your postings on those issues if you feel that they demand our attention, but I think it's rather nasty for you to condemn me for not writing about every subject.

3. Probably the main reason that I posted about Chavez is that I was surprised by this news and thought that others would be too. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which some might argue is getting better, Venezuela seems to be getting worse. My first concern wasn't that Chavez is dangerous to our interests--it was that our demand for oil increases his ability to stay in power. Notice that I ended the post calling for more openness with regard to the oil revenues, so that they would be used for the interests of Venezuelans, not Chavez.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I am one of those people who is extremely interested in the "next generation" of leftist politicians in Latin America. Kirchner, Morales, Vazquez, Bachelet, Humala--all very radical compared to US standards and all very new at their positions. Just glancing at international reports such as the "Transparency International Corruption Perception Index" and the Reporters Without Borders "Press Freedom Index," Chile and Uruguay are the best bets as far as examining economic policy without having to worry too much about corruption or press abuse (they are both comparable to the US. Surprise, surprise--Scandinavian countries rank highest!) Peru and Venezuela on the other hand...

This leads me to Chavez. As with the other governments, I am interested in his economic policy. On foreign relations and domestic corruption, I can only call him a thug. Austin is right that he is a menace that we should watch carefully. US leftists would be better off keeping their distance, which is difficult precisely because of the "enemy of my enemy" scenario, and Chavez is definitely the most vocal of the anti-US South American politicians.

If all this sounds a bit trite, I apologize. But if you're looking for my opinion, Chavez is bad for Venezuela like Bush is bad for the US. It's frustrating trying to find more people who think this way, because opinions tend to veer toward either extreme. If you want a more informed opinion, I would check out these articles:,,329473656-102280,00.html

The first damning of Chavez, the second more ambiguous. There are of course hundreds of articles available.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I would think that it need not be said my comment was not really directed toward you. I'm sorry I did not make that clearer. You're a little sensitive.

As for Chavez, I agree with everything's that been said, and I have from the beginning. It IS alarming that he's seeking the presidency for the next 30 years, silencing dissent, etc. I'm just not convinced by attacks on his foreign and domestic policies. Of course he's trying to create an anti-U.S. South American left, but I just don't see how he's a serious threat to our national security (as for our economic security, I think everything he's doing is for the best: giving cheap oil to poor people, and giving yet another example to U.S. politicians that we must get off our oil addiction quickly). We'll see what happens with this extended term limit deal. If he holds a referendum, I don't think anyone on this blog would be surprised if he wins it, given his genuine popularity among the poor.

As the Observer article points out, Chavez is one among a long, rich tradition of turning the U.S. into an enemy. Indeed, I would go so far to say that the entire project of uniting South America against an "imperial" aggressor is as old Bolivar. To be a poor Venezuelan, or Bolivian, or Peruvian now, it seems to me, is to be excited about a future that's radically different from the past [though perhaps our South American beat reporter would disagree]. Though many of the capitalist reforms in these countries have produced substantial growth, this growth has in only few cases meant job opportunities and wage increases for the poor masses. As a non-jingoistic citizen of the United States, I (mertaphorically) will agree wholeheartedly to keep a close eye on Chavez, etc. to make sure something spooky-totalitarian doesn't rise. But until I see clear signs that it does, and that it will (the 30-year thing is ominous), I will resist the temptation to resist the rise of leftist -- though not necessarily Chavezian -- Latin America.

1:09 PM  

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