03 January 2013

Venezuela's self-made crisis

The quasi-deathwatch taking place in Venezuela as President Chavez battles cancer in a Cuban hospital is sadly reminiscent of the news we used to get from Communist countries and other dictatorships all the time. People of my age may remember the anxiety that developed as ailing or aging leaders disappeared from view, and the attempts to interpret inscrutable medical bulletins. Whether it was Franco (to throw in an example on the global right), Tito, Brezhnev, or someone else, the overall impression simply reinforced the grim fact that whoever got into power in such places ruled for life -- literally. Hugo Chavez is not a ruler-in-life formally, and has at least envisioned himself retiring around age 90, but he has clearly seen himself for some time as an indispensable man who has to hold power as long as he can -- while continuing to risk it in strongly contested elections -- on the assumption that he alone has the special gifts of leadership to carry out revolutionary change. He has designated a temporary president during his illness and/or recovery, but only when that man becomes the permanent president will we really know whether Chavez has been a truly constructive leader or if all his successes have depended entirely on his personality. Meanwhile, an apparently irrepressible opposition -- despite their constant cries of repression -- exacerbates the deathwatch atmosphere by questioning whether the government and the Cubans are telling the truth about the severity of Chavez's illnesses. The opposition certainly believes that the "Bolivarian Revolution" is a one-man show, and their fervent hope is that it will all evaporate once Chavez is dead.

Hugo Chavez is indisputably an egomaniac. That alone has never made him a tyrant, and it doesn't necessarily make him a bad leader by any standard. Liberal democracy may prefer more self-effacing leaders, but it's Chavez's own belief that strong personal leadership has often been a necessity in history. He may be a figure of the global Left but he espouses a "great man theory" of history more often abhorred by academic leftists, who prefer to see large social forces pushing interchangeable men toward inevitable action, though leftist governments all too often turn to great-man theories in their day-to-day propaganda. Liberals would feel more comfortable with someone like Chavez if his first priority was to get his nation to a point where it could do without him and wouldn't have to hold its collective breath every time he went to the hospital. The more time passes without that happening, the more liberals (and those to their right) suspect that someone like Chavez is just out to rule people for his own sake. The deeper truth may be more complicated. Chavez may well be -- we could even say probably is such a person -- though to date he has not gone nearly so far as recent history's other "indispensable" men to keep his country from dispensing with him. But we also shouldn't underestimate the extent to which personal charisma may be both effective and necessary for major political change in the short term. No form of government can institutionalize charisma -- though many ancient regimes tried by instituting ruler-worship -- but charisma (if not a personality cult) may be a precondition, often regrettable, if revolutions want a chance to institutionalize their reforms. If so, it becomes important to distinguish between two kinds of indispensability.

Too often, self-appointed vanguards have deemed themselves indispensable and committed atrocities on the consequent assumption that no one else should have power. A different kind of indispensability is possible, premised on the assumption that no one else can accomplish what's necessary, and combined with an obligation to ensure that others can as soon as possible. Looking at it another way, it's one thing to see injustice and dysfunction everywhere and say that something must be done about it, or somebody must do something, and another to see the same problems and say that I must do something. Nothing gets done without the latter happening, and if that means that the latter people are indispensable, bear in mind that ideally there's never just one indispensable man. If Chavez has acted under the assumption that he's the only indispensable man in Venezuela, his revolution will suffer the fate it would probably deserve. But fate may deal it a fatal blow simply by striking Chavez down before he had his reforms entirely in place, while he was still all too indispensable. It's simply impossible to set a timetable for such things that would be good for all places and all circumstances; to insist on such a timetable is simply dogmatic. There's no getting around the fact that no final judgment can be passed on Chavez or his revolution until well after he actually passes from the scene. That so much now seems to depend on whether he lives may reflect badly on him in some way, but history often isn't what it seems when it's still the present.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Or it could be that someone like Chavez feels he is necessary to keep out meddling corporations with american backing until his people have rooted out and dealt with the trash who seek only to exploit them for personal gain.

Crhymethinc said...

Now apply your reasoning to someone like Jack Welch or Bill Gates or any other corporate honcho. Those who do what they feel necessary - no matter the misery it brings - to secure the profit margin.

If we are to see dictators in every "indispensable man", then how much more wary ought we to be of those who hold power behind the scenes. Before you argue that someone like Jack Welch doesn't hold political power, ask yourself why GE has been tax exempt for so long. . .

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon, no matter what Chavez feels he's necessary for the "only I can do this" attitude is problematic when it results in scenarios like the one playing in Venezuela and Cuba. As I wrote, we can't assume he's made a mistake, simply because he isn't an old man like the other rulers I mentioned and this illness is a case of bad luck. It just creates a bad impression because it resembles those old-school deathwatches.

Crhymethinc, I have nothing to say in defense of Welch, but Microsoft seems different from a country -- I suppose it resembles a monarchy more than a dictatorship because people assume that it belongs to Gates in a way no one would concede that Venezuela belongs to Chavez, or GE to Welch when he ran it. The real issue with any real or perceived indispensable man is how far he will go to hold on to power, but the danger always seems greater in the political realm because of the temptation to jail or kill your rivals.

Crhymethinc said...

But there is a distinct difference between Castro's regime and Chavez' administration. Considering how american corporations continue, with the aid of the american government, to undermine the legitimately elected government of Venezuela, I can understand why Chavez trusts only himself to see the mission through.

As much as I prefer the idea of democracy, given a choice of a corrupt, greed-driven, corporate "owned" government like ours, or a strong man who is willing to stand up to corporate interest in defense of the interests of his people, given me a Chavez any day of the week.

Crhymethinc said...

Insofar as "killing your rivals", we only need look at the plight of the coal miners in the late 19th/early 20th century, where they {as rivals in a fashion of the mine owners} were terrorized, beaten and murdered for simply demanding better working conditions and wages. If you don't believe that the greedy are willing to murder, or have murdered, in furtherance of their wealth, you are sadly mistaken.

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhyme, Castro always used a similar argument -- the American threat -- to justify his personal dictatorship and the suppression of internal dissent until he decided he was too feeble to run things. If the struggle was actually on the terms you propose, it'd be hard not to side with people like Chavez, but there's still the danger that the strong man is mainly out for himself, whether that benefits his people or not, and that in a pinch he'll see the people as his rivals in the same way you suggest that unions were "rivals" to the robber barons of old. But my main point remains that the usual moral objections to dictatorship cannot be conversation stoppers when we talk about the public good, so your sometimes harsher perspective is always welcome.

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, Chavez has not yet begun rounding up political prisoners nor, as far as I know, is he a stooge for the Russians.

I really do believe he is a socialist who is convinced that only he can lead the revolution to it's proper conclusion . . . although it's looking like he won't survive. Let's just hope his revolution does. I only hope that his successor has the spine to keep corporate influence out and the people's influence in.

Samuel Wilson said...

So far the biggest civil-liberties complaints against Chavez have boiled down to harassment and his denial of license renewals to some media outlets he blames for supporting the attempted coup against him. The latest anon comment does beg an interesting question: can someone consider himself (or herself) a socialist and also believe himself to be personally indispensable? I can see Leninists thinking that way, and the idea of indispensable leaders also seems to be part of Chavez's "Bolivarian" ideology, but does that make Bolivarism inconsistent with socialism to any extent?

Anonymous said...

"Indispensable" may be the wrong word. Perhaps the point is, he's the only one willing to do the job. The only one willing to put himself and his life against American-backed corporate incursions into his country. Does that make him "indispensable"?

Was Abraham Lincoln indispensable to the abolitionist movement, or was he simply the one man willing to tear the nation apart (to do what was necessary) to halt the growth of a revolting human practice?

Samuel Wilson said...

Depends on how you define the job. Chavez has always had competitors for the job of president, but the competitors pretty clearly reject the job as you describe it. In such cases, the people's choice decides what the job is. A question for the future, depending on Chavez's health, is whether he'd allow competition for the job as he and the majority of Venezuelan voters have defined it. If someone rises up and says, "I can do a better job combating American corporate incursions than you," Chavez's response would be a real test of his character.

Lincoln's an interesting case because the abolitionists didn't even consider him one of their own. However, while Lincoln didn't commit to ending slavery before the war came, he did say repeatedly that his actual policy of limiting its territorial expansion would put slavery on the course of ultimate extinction, and the slave states responded accordingly to his election. Lincoln didn't consider himself so indispensable as to justify cancelling the 1864 election, but he wasn't violating any traditional term limits by seeking a second term, either. Of course, it's easier to deem someone indispensable in retrospect, while it irks many to hear someone claim that status here and now.

Anonymous said...

I guess I just accept the fact that sometimes, in some places, a strong man is necessary to get the job done. I do believe there are people who can flourish under that situation. I do enjoy aspects of our american culture, but I would never assume it is the "best" culture. I would have to live in Venezuela under Chavez before I would make a judgement. If he truly does care about the poor and working class of his country and does all right by them, I really don't care who's wealthy toes he steps on to do it.