A friend writes: "I've been reading in the NYRB about Hugo Chávez. I have a soft spot for him but he sounds really weird. Maybe you should put up something about him."
Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, I should say something about Chávez. I kind of like him, too, and think he is a good phenomenon -- that is, that it's good for Venezuela that he happened. About him personally: He's a very quick thinker but not a deep one. What I mean is that he latches onto ideas that he reads or hears about without working out their likely consequences -- to an even greater degree than Fidel. He's also a very quick talker (I had a five-or-ten-minute impromptu conversation with him once; see Chatting with Chávez). He's also got a strong authoritarian tendency, which could bode ill.
First, about chavismo being a good phenomenon, apart from whether Chávez is or is not a good president.
The overthrow of the last military dictator, Lt. Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, on January 23, 1958, raised great democratic hopes, but in the decades since, a narrow elite of business leaders, political party bosses and their allies managed to turn the institutions of Venezuelan democracy into a machine to guarantee their privileges and exclude the masses. The electoral laws, party structure, judicial system, etc., protected them and their property from scrutiny, while the national petroleum company channeled the oil wealth into their bank accounts or into projects benefitting mainly the elite. The two major parties entered into a pact to share the spoils of the country's oil wealth, while neglecting the needs of the mass of the population and of the nation as a whole: public schools, public health, affordable housing, economic development to create jobs. Those who were born poor faced ever decreasing chances to become less poor. The elite, because they were mainly descendants of generations of privilege, were and are mostly white; the great majority is dark.
Pressure from below threatened to blow this system apart several times, most dramatically in the guerrilla war of the 1960s and the riots of 1989. In the unions, the barrios, professional associations, the armed forces and minority parties, many people were working more or less independently of one another to change things. Finally, in 1998, all that pent-up energy for change found its almost-ideal leader in a hyper-energetic, quick-witted, dark-skinned, up-from-poverty military man, who had tried and failed to lead a coup six years earlier and now was ready to try politics.
Chávez has by now survived a coup and won a whole series of elections, the most recent by over 59%. But the huge movement we call "chavismo" is bigger than Chávez and parts of it are much older than his political presence, stemming from movements founded in 1989 or even earlier. Those older movements need him, and he still needs them, and for now the uneasy alliance between them leaves space for a lot of divergent opinion -- as we saw in the recent, hotly contested internal elections inside the chavista party.
Is this democracy? What else would you call it? You have a popularly elected president and legislature, and a lot of room for debate -- although the guarantees of freedom of speech are not really secure, and the meaning of certain constitutional restrictions (by the new "Bolivarian" constitution) not entirely clear. But the opposition to chavismo has hardly been muzzled (just sometimes threatened), and the debate within chavismo continues.
I haven't been back to Venezuela recently, and it's hard to judge the tenor of political discourse without actually being in it. But I do know the country's recent past, and have some idea of the dynamics of revolutionary regimes, and here's my hypothesis: The danger for democracy in Venezuela will come if and when Hugo Chávez establishes such a wide base of power in organizations of his own creation, that he no longer needs to heed the other organizations that so far have been supporting him. At that point we may expect a Creole and (probably but not certainly) bloodless version of the "night of the long knives," as the Germans called the 1934 purge of the SA.
But I don't think that will happen, or -- if it should happen -- that consolidation of absolute dictatorial power would last very long. Partly as a consequence of all the agitation and political education that has been going on for the past seven years, including the government's health and education misiones in the barrios, Venezuelans across the land will know how to recognize and resist any sort of dictatorship. And so far, Hugo Chávez has been very good at reading the national mood.
For more detail, look at my 1991 book, The Land and People of Venezuela (written for young readers), or these more recent essays: Venezuela, 2004/05/01, and Venezuela Now, 2003
Steve Ellner, Venezuela’s “Demonstration Effect”: Defying Globalization’s Logic
Alma Guillermoprieto, Don't Cry for Me, Venezuela, New York Review of Books, 10/6/2005, and The Gambler, NYRB 10/20/2005 -- and be sure also to check out the Corrections to several errors in the first piece (Alma must have been in a hurry when she wrote it).