Hugo Chavez’s popularity was not confined to Venezuela; it was a global phenomenon. He pulled together a coalition of forces into a kind of “Chavez International,” an alternative to Western hegemony. It was an amalgam of allies whose comradeship was historically weird – communists, Islamists, Soviet holdovers, Western idealists and far leftists – but politically potent. And in the end, irrelevant.
Chavez’s first, closest alliance was with Fidel Castro. It was unconditional devotion on the part of the younger man; on Fidel’s side, it was admiration coupled with a canny estimation of the benefits of Venezuela’s loyalty in a post-Soviet era. Cuba got billions of dollars’ worth of oil; Venezuela got thousands of Cuban medical staff, engineers and other experts. More than that, Fidel gave Chavez an ideology of sorts, or as Francisco Toro writes, “a kind of cosmic morality play pitting unalloyed socialist ‘good’ in an unending death struggle against the ravages of ‘evil’ American imperialism.”
The “American imperialism” was the glue that bound Chavez International together. It united him with a range of world figures eager to court him for his oil wealth, and happy to join with him against a West ‑ and an Amerika (with a “k:), in particular ‑ that was either their active or potential foe. Chavez visited, and loudly proclaimed the virtue, of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the late Muammar Gaddafi, the even later Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Many of those were given the “Order of the Liberator,” Venezuela’s highest honor, though most of these figures were or are deeply abusive of human rights, and some – such as Saddam, Mugabe and presently and most brutally, Assad – waged war on sections of their own population.
When – rarely – it was put to Chavez that his embrace of these figures was contrary to the posture of one who saw himself as a liberator, he fell back on a rationale that has become an all-purpose escape clause for those joined in Chavez International: that the tyrants are tyrants only according to the “Western corporate media.”
Christopher Hitchens traveled in Venezuela with Chavez, and with the actor and Chavez supporter Sean Penn, in 2008. He related a conversation in which the president appeared to deny the existence of Osama bin Laden: “I don’t know anything about Osama bin Laden that doesn’t come to me through the filter of the West and its propaganda,” Chavez said. “There is film of the Americans landing on the moon. Does that mean the moon shot really happened? In the film, the Yanqui flag is flying straight out. So, is there wind on the moon?”
Chavez International either ignored, or was in no position to condemn, the real human rights abuses in Chavez’s Venezuela. In a savagely critical obituary, Human Rights Watch summed up his 14-year presidency as “characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.” But HRW, whose representatives were barred from entry to Venezuela, could be dismissed: Chavez could, writes Francisco Toro, use an “unthinking anti-Americanism (as) the all-purpose excuse for any and every authoritarian excess, stigmatizing any form of protests and casting a dark pall over any expression of discontent or dissent.”
Latin American states have ample historic reasons to doubt the intentions of the United States to leaders who, democratically or not, took power on a leftist program: Salvador Allende in Chile was deposed in a coup condoned (though not mounted) by the U.S.; above all, as a kind of symbol of the “Great Satan” to the north, Fidel Castro survived assassination attempts and a 1961 invasion by Cuban exiles trained and backed by President John F. Kennedy’s CIA.
Chavez, eager to be in the martyr’s club (without being martyred) would allege assassination plots and U.S. backing for a 2002 coup that temporarily deposed him, but no proof has been discovered and the journalistic and scholarly consensus is that the U.S. now may disapprove, sometimes vocally, of some of its southern neighbors while leaving them (including Chavez) alone. In Chavez’s case, anti-Americanism was more virtual than real: Even as he blasted the United States, Venezuela was and is wholly dependent on America’s purchases of its oil.
The spigot of oil wealth meant he could buy lots of friends around the world, and buy himself out of most trouble. The majority, many of them very poor, who voted for him benefited from his social programs.
But Chavez didn’t really change the world beyond Venezuela. He had money, charisma and popular support, but he didn’t have an ideology, other than a melodramatic hatred of the United States. His death won’t be the end of that brand of global politics, but it might give serious politicians of whatever stripe, including those who view the U.S. negatively, some pause. U.S. power is great, and is likely to be in the future. But it is declining, and cannot reasonably continue to dominate a world in which two vast states, China and to a presently lesser extent India, are growing economically and strategically.
Barack Obama now seeks to have the world’s present and future monitored by coalitions of states, not merely by a Western hegemon. No future U.S. president of either party can escape the American need to cut its huge debt, and to seek allies in creating a global system in which major states find agreements on the myriad of challenges and threats we now face. That’s the serious business of international relations. By contrast, Chavez’s posturings were those of a rich kid with a fast car with nowhere to go.
Chavez International was an anachronism afloat on a lake of oil, envied by many but a poor role model for those serious about changing the world. If there is a politics that ensures that the poor of the earth get a better deal from the way the world changes, it will have to be more serious than those proposed by the late President of Venezuela.