Someone just forwarded an anonymous attack --a string of insults, really -- on Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile, because he dared to say in an interview that Hugo Chávez's kind of leftism was not replicable in other countries without Venezuela's fat "checkbook". An obvious enough point, one would think, but unacceptable to the anonymous author, who seems to think that boldness and clear revolutionary thinking are all that are needed to bring about revolutions everywhere.
We should be skeptical of all politicians, including Lagos & Chávez. Nevertheless, Lagos appears to me to be one of the most honest and effective of the bunch. He left office even more popular than when he entered, so clearly a lot of Chileans have a high opinion of him. He is of course pragmatic -- like all successful and long-lasting politicians, Left or Right. What the French call a possibiliste. And he is also cautious, as anybody governing Chile (with its terrible recent history) should be. So if his policies were "liberal" or "neoliberal", that was due less to his personal wishes than to his estimate (pretty astute, I think) of what his government could get away with.
Hugo Chávez is less obviously pragmatic, and far less cautious in what he says -- though I think he's very careful about maintaining good relations with his armed forces, which is a kind of pragmatism. He has also discovered that he can get away with, can dare to pursue, much bolder anti-U.S. policies than could Lagos. Not only that he can do it, but that he will be applauded for it. There are at least three immense differences between Venezuela and Chile that make Chávez's defiant rhetoric and aggressive reforms possible, all of them conjunctural (that is, produced by a convergence of historical processes that may not last long): (1) the high price of petroleum, and Venezuela's abundance of it; Chilean copper is selling well, too, but not like oil. So Chávez has the resources to spend on projects both useful and wasteful. (2) The weakening of the U.S. government's interest or capacity to slap down this opponent, because of its contradictory petroleum needs and the calamitous failure of its Iraq war (which was supposed to secure the needs of U.S. petroleum interests forever, but has ended up producing nothing but costs in all areas -- military depletion, diplomatic weakness, spiraling deficit). (3) The utterly different social-political history of the two countries. Just one aspect to note: Chile has a very large, established and monied conservative bloc, nearly as large as its very deeply established left. Votes, when free (before and after Pinochet) have always been close, with either Right or Left's hold on government precarious. Neither Lagos, nor Allende, nor anybody had the kind of support in the polls that Hugo Chávez musters. I think the main reason that the Right is so ineffective as a political force in Venezuela is that it never really had to bother about mobilizing voters, it was enough for them to make money while a whole series of corruptible governments of the white elite kept the darker masses at bay. The Venezuelan Left is also radically different from that in Chile, where both the Socialist and Communist parties became highly institutionalized, with large bases of trade union members, producing a more cautious political culture than in Venezuela where the ideologues of the Left parties, with much smaller and more marginalized rank-and-files, were responsible to no one but their own visions of the truth.
By the way, here's what Lagos really had to say about Chávez, in an interview in El País (26/03/2007). It sounds very sensible.
¿Considera válidos los análisis que dividen a América Latina entre los países en favor y en contra del presidente venezolano, Hugo Chávez?
Las políticas de Chávez se sustentan en la capacidad financiera que le da el petróleo y no son reproducibles en otros países que no tienen petróleo, donde no tienen esa solvencia. A lo mejor, a muchos jefes de Estado les gustaría tener la chequera abundante; otra cosa es saber darle el mejor uso a esa chequera. En condiciones mucho más modestas, Chile ha experimentado una holgura financiera producto del precio del cobre y ha hecho un uso cuidadoso de esos fondos, destinando parte de esos recursos al desarrollo en ciencia y tecnología y guardando otra parte... El tema de los pros y los anti Chávez es maniqueo.
Photo of Lagos from Chilean newspaper Clarín