Maybe it was just a rhetorical device, but if was funny to see author Greg Grandin change his mind in the middle of a eulogy for the late Hugo Chavez in the April 1 issue of The Nation. Taking a self-consciously "perverse" stance in defiance of Americans who denounced Chavez as a strongman or authoritarian, Grandin wrote that "the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chavez was authoritarian, but that he wasn't authoritarian enough. It wasn't too much control that was the problem but too little." What he meant was that Chavez, like many strong leaders both democratic (FDR) and undemocratic (Hitler), allowed a good deal of redundant institutional competition. "Rather than forming a single-party dictatorship with an interventionist state bureaucracy controlling people's lives, Chavismo has been fairly wide open and chaotic ... comprising at least five different currents: a new Bolivarian political class, older leftist parties, economic elites, military interests and the social movements....Everybody got to do what they wanted: the moneyed interests got to be corrupt, the social movements got to build something approximating an anarcho-democratic republic." Then Grandin decides that "perhaps more authoritarianism wouldn't have been a good thing," since "it would have co-opted the grass-roots into the state." It was worth some inefficiency to prevent that outcome, so as far as Grandin is concerned that's another point for Chavez.
Otherwise, Grandin makes a more coherent case for the Venezuelan. He's at his best when he points out how exceptional Chavez was in continuing to risk his power in closely contested elections. Compared to other military populists from the region, Chavez "never turned on or repressed his base,' i.e. the working class. In part, that's because he always needed their votes, but based on most people's hostile analysis of Chavez, he should have turned violently dictatorial long before he died. "For decades now social scientists have been telling us that the kind of mobilized regime Venezuela represents is pump-primed for violence," Grandin notes, "that such governments can maintain energy only through internal repression or external war. But despite years of denouncing the oligarchy as squalid traitors, Venezuela has seen remarkably little political repression" compared to other leftist regimes -- or, as Grandin adds provocatively, the United States.
Grandin reminds us that Chavez was popular because he empowered people -- or at the minimum, because millions of Venezuelans felt empowered by him, either because of increased state services to the poor or because of their own participation in the grassroots organizations created or inspired by Chavez. To dismiss their opinion, Grandin argues, is to take Mitt Romney's attitude that any distribution of wealth to the poor is basically a bribe. The eulogy gets most interesting when Grandin challenges conventional wisdom on the subject of the "resource curse" that afflicts not only Venezuela but Russia, Saudi Arabia or any country where state control over a valuable natural resource allegedly distorts both economic and political development.
"Over the years, there’s been a lot of heavy theoretically breathing by
US academics about the miasma oil wealth creates in countries like
Venezuela, lulling citizens into a dreamlike state that renders them
into passive spectators," Grandin writes. While he notes that "oil wealth has much to do" with Chavez's exceptional career, and that it "gave Chavez the luxury of acting as a broker between these competing tendencies," he rejects the idea that Venezuelans responded only to "free money," reminding readers that Chavez's opponents promised in 2006 to let citizens draw a monthly allowance from an oil-bloated treasury, and that a majority of voters spurned the bribe. In any event, while economists might question legitimately whether state dependence on oil revenue discourages economic innovation or diversification, or leaves citizens extremely vulnerable to variations in global oil prices, the "resource curse" argument too often rests on an assumption that it's always wrong, in principle if not in practice, for the state to have control over oil and use it to improve the lives of the poor. At the least, the "resource curse" theory should be argued pragmatically and with an understanding that oil and similar resources may rightly be seen as the birthright of all the people living in a country blessed (or cursed) with such stuff. Grandin has taken a lot of abuse on the Internet for accepting the "useful idiot" label applied to idealistic supporters of strongmen like Chavez, but his insistence on a point of view other than the liberal slippery-slope suspicion of power and leadership is useful, if not for idiots, for anyone who wants to keep an open mind about the world.