Chavez’s cheerleaders: parasites on US impotence
Far from doing battle with US imperial hegemony, Hugo Chavez and his Western fans merely danced on the grave of America’s withered global clout.
What was the secret of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s success? His fans in leftist, literary and luvvie sets in the West would have us believe it was his political dynamism. They say it was Chavez’s ideological clear-mindedness, coupled with a desire among people around the world to see radical policies trump neoliberal dogma, which allowed him to win an impressive four presidential elections and to stay in power for 14 years.
I’m not convinced. Looked at coolly, and a bit more historically, the key contributor to the rise and global stardom of Chavez seems to have been the decline of American clout rather than the resuscitation and return to world politics of state-socialist ideals. The decisive factor in the Chavez story was not his own political vision, but the creeping incapacitation of American power and influence in global affairs, including in Latin America. Chavez and his influential cheerleaders were energised by, indeed were parasitical upon, the glaring inability of Washington to pursue or even outline its interests on the twenty-first-century world stage.
In most ways, Chavez was not that different to other populist leftist leaders that have been shaking up Latin American politics for decades. Like them – whether it was Lazaro Cardenas in 1930s Mexico, Juan Peron in 1940s Argentina, or Salvador Allende in 1970s Chile – his agenda consisted of a mish-mash of anti-Western posturing, nationalisation strategies, social-welfare programmes, and the deployment of a demagogic style that tapped into and exploited the prejudices of certain sections of the public. Chavez was less impressive a leader than someone like Peron, and less radical than Allende, who froze prices and raised wages and whose nationalisation drive stretched from copper and coal companies to the steel industry and a majority of Chilean banks. But in style, and for the most part in content, he was cut from the same cloth as those earlier strongmen.
But there’s one important way in which Chavez was different – his longevity; his success; his political stardom, not only in Venezuela but also among the cultural elites of Europe and even in America. Despite the fact that, in contrast to Cardenas, Peron and Allende, he emerged at a time when there was no Soviet Union and when old socialist ideals were largely discredited, counterintuitively Chavez enjoyed greater staying power and global respect than those earlier Latin American leaders. What this reveals is a striking story of American decline rather than of state-socialist revival; it exposes the inability of modern Washington to keep its opponents in check in a way it would have done with relative ease and very often swagger in the twentieth century.
Pre-Chavez, Latin American leaders who fell foul of Washington did not tend to last long. They met their end either under severe economic pressure from the US or at the hands of military attacks supported by the US. So when President Cardenas of Mexico nationalised foreign oil-holdings in the 1930s, Washington and American capitalism unleashed what one author describes as a ‘vicious propaganda assault’. Cardenas was depicted as a criminal, and Mexican people as really stupid for having supported him (1). America boycotted Mexican oil and refused to purchase Mexican silver, causing big economic problems for the Cardenas regime and contributing to Cardenas’s decision to step aside in 1940 in favour of a more moderate leader.
Juan Peron, who ruled Argentina in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was frequently denounced as a fascist by American elements. Where Chavez enjoyed four presidential terms, Peron didn’t even manage to reach the end of his second: he was ousted by a military coup in 1955 that was implicitly supported by Washington. Certainly when Eduardo Lonardi, the Catholic nationalist coup leader, committed post-Peron Argentina to creating a ‘favourable climate for American capital’ and to ‘standing squarely with the West’ in international affairs, he won the swift recognition of Washington (2). (Lonardi was himself later deposed by another military faction, and Peron briefly regained the Argentinian presidency in the mid-1970s.)
As for Allende of Chile – infamously, he lasted a mere three years, from 1970 to 1973, before he was ousted in a bloody coup condoned by the CIA which installed general Augusto Pinochet in power. American agents played a key role in laying the groundwork for this coup in which thousands died. CIA operatives in Chile worked hard to sway public opinion against Allende and even helped to organise protests designed to show that Allende’s Chile wasn’t working. The aim, declassified CIA documents have shown, was to create a ‘coup climate’; an atmosphere in which some force in Chilean society might depose Allende (3). This eventually, and disastrously, came to pass.
In different ways, and using various political, economic or military methods, in the cases of 1930s Mexico, 1940s Argentina and 1970s Chile, Washington worked hard to elbow aside leaders whom it considered a threat to its economic and political interests in Latin America, and to the balance of forces in international affairs more broadly.
Fast forward to the ‘Chavez era’ of the 2000s. The differences could not be more striking. This time, despite clearly feeling massively riled by Chavez, and being regularly mocked by him, neither the Bush nor Obama administrations seemed capable of meaningfully influencing either developments inside Venezuela or attitudes towards Chavez in America or in political circles in Europe.
Modern America’s deadened global punch was brilliantly illuminated during the one laughable coup attempt against Chavez. In April 2002, Chavez was ousted for 47 hours by some members of the Venezuelan military backed by pro-business sections of the elite. He was later reinstated by his own military loyalists. America was basically a helpless spectator of the coup, not knowing which way to turn or what to say. Without an American nod or any serious external backing, and bereft of any coherent ‘neoliberal’ or just old-fashioned right-wing agenda with which to replace Chavez, the coup leaders got stage fright and gave up. If you coolly contrast the failed anti-Chavez coup of 2002 with the successful anti-Allende coup of 1973, you will see, not that Chavez is more impressive and powerful than someone like Allende, but rather that the traditional opponents of such Latin American firebrands are in a profound, if not mortal state of disarray. The political survival of Chavez for so long speaks primarily to a crisis of traditional bourgeois ideology, to a collapse of coherent free-market politics, and, most strikingly, to the moral impotence of imperial America. It is those things, rather than his own vision, which sustained and even energised Chavez for so long, with Chavez and his influential backers not so much marching into war against American hegemony or neoliberal dogma as dancing on the wreckage of those exhausted things.
That is not, of course, how the Chavez story is presented by those in the West who sang his praises over the past 14 years. On the contrary, Chavez cheerers madly talk about that 2002 comedy coup against him in the same breath as the horrendous Chilean coup of 1973, and they depict America as still all-powerful and free-market ideology as omnipotent, something which it took great guts for Chavez (and themselves) to stand up to. In this delusional distortion of the truth about Chavez, we can glimpse the important role he played for Western radicals – as a fantasy figure, a mythical creature, whom Western activists bereft of any serious political outlook or domestic audience might line up behind in a safe, phoney battle against the already-dead ideology of free-market fundamentalism and the long-withered domination by America of global affairs.
If America’s failure to shunt Chavez aside in Venezuela spoke to its impotent international reach, then its inability to counteract the idolisation of Chavez everywhere from Hollywood to Western literary circles spoke to its failure to win over large swathes of the cultural elite to American values. It is through loving Chavez that many a modern youth and respectable commentator really communicated their fashionable hatred for America, and more importantly for the modern values it is seen to represent.
Western leftists are in mourning for Chavez, never stopping to ask why they invested so much hope in such a faraway figure in the first place. And those of a more right-wing, pro-capitalist persuasion are celebrating his death, not bothering to ask why it took 14 years and cancer to do to Chavez what their political forebears would have done to a leader they didn’t like in a matter of months.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.