Castro comes to visit
In 1971, Fidel Castro went to Chile as a guest of its new president Salvador Allende. The Cuban leader left with a gloomy view of the prospects for the first democratically-elected Marxist government in the Americas. Confiding to associates in private, Castro predicted the tragic defeat of Allende’s Popular Unity experiment two years later:
“He is tied to his constitutional ideas. He trusts in the impartiality of the military. And he is certain that they will always defend the legitimate government.”
The Chilean president, according to Castro, dwelt “in a world that is too full of illusion and poetry.”
The bloody coup launched by General Pinochet confirmed the accuracy of Castro’s diagnosis. Constant affirmations by Popular Unity spokesmen that the army would always respect Chile’s democratic traditions proved to be hopelessly naïve. A bloody reign of terror followed that decimated one of the most vibrant workers’ movements in the western hemisphere. Thousands of people were tortured and killed. Dissidents were thrown from army helicopters into shark-infested waters. Police dogs were trained to rape female detainees. The brutality of the new regime was perhaps best symbolised by its treatment of the legendary folk singer Víctor Jara, whose hands were broken so he could not play his guitar before he was killed by soldiers in the Santiago football stadium.
Writing a few weeks after the overthrow of Allende’s government, Ralph Miliband attributed the grim debacle to the same illusions noted by Castro during his visit:
“Considering the manner of Salvador Allende’s death, a certain reticence is very much in order. Yet, it is impossible not to attribute to him at least some of the responsibility for what ultimately occurred … Allende believed in conciliation because he feared the result of a confrontation. But because he believed that the Left was bound to be defeated in any such confrontation, he had to pursue with ever-greater desperation his policy of conciliation; but the more he pursued that policy, the greater grew the assurance and boldness of his opponents. Moreover, and crucially, a policy of conciliation of the regime’s opponents held the grave risk of discouraging and demobilizing its supporters … Salvador Allende was a noble figure and he died a heroic death. But hard though it is to say it, that is not the point. What matters, in the end, is not how he died, but whether he could have survived by pursuing different policies; and it is wrong to claim that there was no alternative to the policies that were pursued.”
Nevertheless, Fidel Castro himself could have learned some valuable lessons from Salvador Allende. By the time he travelled to Chile, Castro had already presided over the transformation of Cuba into an orthodox communist regime which contrasted sharply with the pluralistic hurly-burly of the Popular Unity coalition. The Cuban political system steadily congealed into a one-party state that kept a tight leash on free expression. That evolution was illustrated by the fate of another creative artist, the poet Heberto Padilla.
Padilla was a supporter of the 1959 revolution who made no attempt to conceal his dislike of the Soviet model and its importation to Cuba. He fell foul of the Cuban authorities and was arrested in 1971 on suspicion of writing “counter-revolutionary” poems. A number of progressive intellectuals from outside Cuba signed an open letter in his support, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They were denounced by Castroite spokesmen as “agents of the metropolitan imperialist culture who have found a small group of mentally colonised people in our country who echo their ideas.” The reek of authoritarian decay could again be discerned when Padilla was released and made a public statement of “self-criticism”.
The Chilean and Cuban experiences demonstrate the two sides of a dilemma that must be faced by anyone who sets out to radically change their society. If a revolutionary leadership does not act firmly to neutralise its most dangerous enemies, it will leave the door open to a ruthless counter-revolution that will inevitably be followed by a blood-bath. But if it fails to draw a careful line between violent subversion and legitimate dissent, it will snuff out much of the energy that a healthy revolution depends on and pave the way for a new form of oppression. How do you keep the wolves from the door, without becoming a wolf yourself? Venezuela is not the first country to face this dilemma, and it will not be the last[i].
Chavez in context
Too often, discussion of the Bolivarian revolution has concentrated exclusively on one side of this question while ignoring the other. We are used to the tiresome mendacity of right-wing politicians and journalists who denounce Hugo Chavez as a tyrant and a madman without offering the barest shred of evidence. That is the nature of the beast. Less understandable is the attitude which has become almost de rigeur on the liberal left recently – in publications like the Guardian and the New Yorker, coverage of Venezuela seems to be informed by a glib “we know where this is heading” attitude that bases itself on a superficial reading of history[ii].
This comes at a time when conservative opponents of the Venezuelan government have ratcheted up their propaganda campaign dramatically. Scenting blood after the defeat sustained by Chavez in last year’s constitutional referendum, these elements have released a torrent of disinformation into tame media outlets, seeking to present the Venezuelan president as a drug dealer and a supporter of “narco-terrorism”. The farcical “laptops of mass destruction” saga has been the centerpiece of this campaign, but it began earlier. The purpose of the black propaganda is clear: to legitimise renewed efforts to overthrow Chavez by whatever blend of domestic subversion and foreign aggression proves to be necessary and practical (the history of US intervention in Latin America offers a rich variety of models in this regard).
At a time when a sinister and potentially murderous agenda demands exposure, liberal journalists have generally preferred to ring their hands about the supposedly ominous path being traced by the Chavez government. It has fallen to stalwarts of the radical left like John Pilger, Tariq Ali and Seamus Milne to speak out in defence of the Venezuelan president. Sometimes this failure to challenge the lies of the Right may betray timidity or lazy group-think. But no doubt in many cases it is based on genuine anxiety. Such anxiety might be lessened if the superficial reading of history mentioned above was given a little more substance.
Communist dictatorships usually began life as communist dictatorships. They did not start out respecting pluralism and free speech and gradually transform themselves into autocracies. Sometimes communist leaders were popular (Castro and Tito, for example) but they were never democratic. There is no example of a government of the Left which ruled by freely-given consent for a decade, respecting basic democratic freedoms and allowing its opponents to put their ideas before the electorate, then converted itself into a one-party regime. This is not to say that it could never happen in the future. But those who claim to see history repeating an old pattern in Venezuela should invest a little more time in finding out what the historical record actually is.
If we compare Chavez to a previous generation of progressive nationalist leaders, his democratic credentials stand out. Consider for a moment Fidel Castro, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, or the Mozambican leader Samora Machel. In many ways they were the best revolutionary chiefs of their age, courageous, principled and self-sacrificing, showing no sign of desiring power for its own sake. None of them was willing, however, to organise an election that their own party might lose. Hugo Chavez is head and shoulders above his predecessors when it comes to this vital question: he has already held more free elections and referendums in a decade than Castro permitted in half a century as Cuba’s leader.
That is the context which is sorely lacking in much liberal discussion of the Venezuelan experiment. It is perfectly legitimate to express concerns about where Venezuela might be headed (as long as those concerns are based on real events and not fictional smears). Every government is flawed, every government is certain to make mistakes – sometimes grave ones. A government bent on radical change will encounter much fiercer opposition and much more difficult conditions than a conventional administration is likely to face, and is thus rather more liable to commit serious errors.
The temptation will always exist to narrow the limits of political freedom beyond the minimum space needed for a properly-functioning democracy. The authoritarian temptation should be seen as just that – a temptation, a path that might be taken if the wrong decisions are made and the wrong strategies adopted, not a fate that is inevitable once social reformers go beyond anemic gradualism and quicken the pace of change.
The excellent new biography of Hugo Chavez by Bart Jones provides us with much of the information necessary for weighing up the vital questions. How oppressive and unjust was the old social and political order in Venezuela? How much violence was used to maintain it? What opportunities existed for gradual reform? How great is the danger of a violent counter-revolution, and what would it entail? Finally, it allows us to judge the record of the Chavez government and the accuracy of claims that Venezuela is fast becoming an authoritarian state.
The old order
As Bart Jones explains, he has had more direct experience of Venezuelan society than the foreign correspondents who spend their time in the country travelling between wealthy neighbourhoods and elite restaurants, picking up the world-view of the anti-Chavez opposition without ever making contact with his support base in the poor barrios. He first went to Venezuela as a development worker in 1992, living in a desperately poor area:
“One day the neighbour told me she had not eaten in two days, had had only coffee to drink, and had no food for her three children. I bought her a bundle of groceries. The barrio of dusty dirt roads lacked running water and indoor toilets. Like many residents, I bathed with a bucket in an outdoor “shower” that consisted of four walls of corrugated tin. A water truck came by a couple of times a week and filled barrels we kept in our front yards.”
Jones argues that the Venezuelan president “touched the souls of the impoverished because he was one of them. He grew up dirt poor at a time when Venezuela’s oil wealth was creating fabulous fortunes for a fortunate few”. Hugo Chavez was raised in a small rural town by his grandmother, “in a simple house that was typical of the impoverished region. Its walls were made of mud and straw, its roof of palm leaves, its floor of dirt … the house had no refrigerator, no fan, no running water, no indoor bathroom.”
This is not just another cheesy “rags-to-riches” back-story. It is one of the key arguments of this book – and one that seems utterly persuasive – that the original hatred of Chavez felt by Venezuela’s traditional elites was inspired not so much by his programme, but by sheer class hatred. They could not bear the fact that a dark-skinned yokel from a poor family had taken the reins of power – whatever he intended to do with them. The same background goes some way towards explaining why Chavez himself has remained committed to his project of transforming Venezuelan society, at considerable risk to his own life.
Pre-Chavez Venezuela was governed by a rigid two-party system that controlled the state from top to bottom. Jones quotes a political analyst who once compared the old duopoly to an organised crime network:
“This interlocking system of privileges and graft that runs through Venezuela wouldn’t last a half-hour with a RICO grand jury [as Sopranos fans will know, RICO is the US law against organised crime]. It’s a racket and has been run like a racket for a very long time.” The racket included businessmen and politicians, judges and lawyers, journalists and priests, police and army officers[iii].
That irresponsible elite squandered Venezuela’s oil revenues and ran up a massive foreign debt in the 1980s. It was Carlos Andres Perez of the AD (Democratic Action) party who inherited this problem, and it was his administration that did more than any to prepare the way for Chavismo. Perez had won the presidency while denouncing IMF austerity programmes as an “atom bomb that kills only people and leaves buildings standing”. He then decided to accept the advice of IMF economists (people he had formerly termed “genocide workers in the pay of economic totalitarianism”) and announced an impeccably orthodox austerity programme within a month of his inauguration. The episode speaks volumes about the integrity of the old political order and its respect for the popular will.
The IMF-inspired programme required massive hikes in food and transport prices, which meant even greater poverty for the urban working class. The barrio dwellers of Caracas responded with violent protests that spread all over the country. Looting broke out, which Jones describes as “an escape valve for the long pent-up anger of a massive under-class”, a poor majority of Venezuelans who had been forced to watch the conspicuous consumption of the elites while they were lectured on the need to tighten belts.
Perez made the fateful decision to send the army into Caracas to restore order. He knew that the soldiers had not been trained to deal with civilian crowds and had never been deployed in the city for such purposes before. He could not claim to have been surprised by the blood-bath which followed, known as the Caracazo: “Soldiers and police operated without restraint, filling the air, especially at night, with the terrifying sound of automatic gun-fire.” The government set the official death toll at 277, but it was certainly far higher (estimates have ranged from 1,000 to 3,000). A human rights group later won the right to excavate a suspected mass grave:
“They found to their horror what they were looking for: black plastic garbage bags containing corpses. Many were mutilated, with arms, legs, and hands chopped off so they could fit in the bags. Others, young men, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to their heads, apparently executed by authorities. Within weeks, they found a total of sixty-eight bodies believed to be victims of the Caracazo. Three were identified by name and turned over to their grieving families. Then the government stopped the investigation.”
It was the Caracazo that prompted left-leaning army officers under the leadership of Hugo Chavez to stage an attempted coup against Perez in 1992. That failed putsch has often been mentioned as if it proved that Chavez is no more of a democrat than the people who tried to depose him in 2002. But after ordering one of the worst atrocities in Latin American history (Jones aptly compares the Caracazo to the Tienanamen Square massacre which took place the same year), Carlos Andres Perez had forfeited any claim to democratic legitimacy. Chavez and his fellow plotters in the army shared more in common with the Portuguese officers who overthrow the dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano in 1974 than with the military strong-men who once seized power in Chile and Argentina. They were certainly better democrats than the officers who followed instructions from Perez to use lethal force against their own people.
Before Chavez turned to electoral politics and won a decisive victory in the 1998 presidential election, there was one more chance for gradual reform within the framework of the old system. Former president Rafael Caldera broke with the COPEI party and ran as an independent in 1993 with the backing of the left-wing MAS party. He won by promising a new direction, but once in power Caldera changed his tune and followed the usual IMF recipes (choosing former guerrilla leader Teodoro Petkoff as the front-man for his neo-liberal agenda). The new government also produced its own notorious corruption scandals.
Caldera’s term in office reinforced the view that Venezuela needed a radical break with the past if it was going to satisfy the aspirations of its people for democratic renewal and social development. That was the popular feeling that carried the left-wing alliance headed by Chavez to a stunning victory in 1998.
[i] After the September massacre of government supporters in Bolivia by the right-wing opposition, Forrest Hylton raised a vital point:
“The opposition has demonstrated the central government’s inability to impose the rule of law amid public-private terror against its supporters-a spectacular triumph for any right-wing movement. Since August’s recall referendum, the arc of illegality and violence traced by the opposition has been unmistakable. While no one anticipated the scale of the massacre in El Porvenir, it was all but certain that one would occur. What if the Bolivian government had tried to prevent this tragedy by sending in the army and riot police before any of its supporters were killed, instead of reacting weakly and hesitantly ex post facto? Will the government rise to the occasion in the future, or are there more massacres to come?”
In a situation like that which exists in Bolivia today, a display of moderation may simply encourage violence.
[ii] This Red Pepper article offers a good critique of the laughable double standards applied by Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll – in Carroll’s mind-set, any claim made by the Venezuelan government is automatically taken to be false and cannot be reported without snide framing remarks, while claims from state officials in Washington or Bogota are handled without so much as a hint of skepticism.
[iii] Jones describes the corruption of the judicial system under the duopoly:
“The entire system was susceptible to bribery and influence peddling. For decades most judges, including Supreme Court magistrates, were appointed by the majority party in Congress – either Democratic Action or COPEI. Only one-quarter of Supreme Court justices held permanent posts; the rest could be dismissed at will. That made moving against politicians, well-connected businessmen, or other members of the power elite unlikely. The system was dominated by interlocking judicial tribus, tribes, comprising law firms, politicians, judges, and other powerful figures who could get clients any decision they needed for the right price or the right connection.”
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