The lib­eral Left for­gets its love for Venezuela

Manawatu Standard - - Opinion - Liam He­hir Palmer­ston North lawyer

Dur­ing the first decade of the cen­tury, there was con­cern that United States pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush was lead­ing Amer­ica down an au­thor­i­tar­ian path. One of those ex­press­ing wor­ries was Hugo Chavez, the late pres­i­dent of Venezuela, who called the for­mer US leader ‘‘Dan­ger Bush Hitler’’.

Chavez crit­i­cised ‘‘in­ter­nal re­pres­sion in­side the United States’’ and, in par­tic­u­lar, ‘‘the Pa­triot Act, which is a re­pres­sive law against US cit­i­zens’’.

While Bush was the bo­gey­man of the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, Chavez was, in the gen­eral nar­ra­tive, a bringer of light. The leader of a ‘‘Bo­li­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion’’ that aimed to bring so­cial­ism to Latin Amer­ica, he was a flam­boy­ant al­ter­na­tive to the staid ap­proach of coun­tries like Den­mark. For the first time since the col­lapse of the USSR, state so­cial­ism was ro­man­tic again.

Of course, Fidel Cas­tro had re­tained a cer­tain ca­chet among some. When he died in 2016, Labour MP Clare Cur­ran tweeted that he was a ‘‘leg­end’’. But the Cuban dic­ta­tor­ship was stale and old. The Bo­li­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion was new and ex­cit­ing.

Venezuela over­flows with oil. With com­mod­ity prices at all-time highs for much of Chavez’s ten­ure, it was over­flow­ing with for­eign ex­change, too. Money may not be ev­ery­thing in life, but it can solve a lot of prob­lems – at least in the short term.

Hugo Chavez re­built the Venezue­lan econ­omy on the foun­da­tions of the boom. The en­ergy sec­tor was na­tion­alised in the name of the peo­ple. Ce­ment, steel, glass and agri­cul­ture fol­lowed, all paid for by surg­ing rev­enues from the oil wind­fall.

On the reg­u­la­tory side, price con­trols were en­acted. Cur­rency con­trols were im­posed too, to stop peo­ple tak­ing their cap­i­tal out of the coun­try. As short­ages be­gan to pinch, as eco­nomics dic­tates, the gov­ern­ment used the oil money to im­port and dis­trib­ute more and more food from abroad.

It was in­ter­est­ing that the Left in NZ, which was then con­cerned with peak oil in ad­di­tion to cli­mate change, would cel­e­brate this petro-so­cial­ism. But Chavez’s charisma was ir­re­sistible. Be­sides, Chavez seemed to al­most al­ways win – and noth­ing pa­pers over con­tra­dic­tion like suc­cess.

Chavez died in of­fice in 2013. In the year of his death, the Us-based Her­itage Foun­da­tion ranked Venezuela 174th in the world for eco­nomic free­dom. Only Zim­babwe, Cuba and North Ko­rea had more re­stricted economies. For the record, New Zealand came in at fourth that year, Den­mark was ninth and the US 10th.

Vet­eran New Zealand jour­nal­ist Gor­don Camp­bell penned a glow­ing obituary of Chavez, which pro­claimed him ‘‘an ex­am­ple of how much a third-world na­tion can achieve when it takes con­trol of its nat­u­ral re­sources from the US and its cor­po­rate al­lies, and uses them to ben­e­fit its own peo­ple and the re­gion’’. He went on to say: ‘‘The main ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Chavez’ 14 years in power were the or­di­nary peo­ple of Venezuela.’’

Chris Trot­ter, clearly an ad­mirer of ‘‘El Pres­i­dente’’, mused wist­fully about what the Kiwi ana­logue of Chavez would look like. ‘‘Imag­ine Hone Harawira blended into Wil­lie Api­ata, with the ide­o­log­i­cal fer­vour of Jane Kelsey and An­nette Sykes.’’ He dreamed of such a com­pos­ite be­ing sent ‘‘into South and west Auck­land on a mis­sion to build a move­ment ca­pa­ble of smash­ing the ne­olib­eral or­der in New Zealand’’, and spread­ing ‘‘his rev­o­lu­tion­ary Aotearoan so­cial­ist ‘cir­cles’ across the en­tire coun­try’’.

Keith Locke, the Green MP with a good heart, but a his­tory of ques­tion­able judg­ments, slated John Key for not at­tend­ing Chavez’s state fu­neral.

The Econ­o­mist, a British mag­a­zine that is the jour­nal of ne­olib­er­al­ism, took a dif­fer­ent view. Although Venezuela has not yet tipped off the precipice, the di­rec­tion of travel was by then clear. The mag­a­zine lamented that Chavez would not be around to reap the whirl­wind of his ‘‘rot­ten legacy’’.

So it has come to pass. A crash in oil prices, while harm­ful to other oil states like Saudi Ara­bia and Rus­sia, dev­as­tated Venezuela. It has be­come one of the most mis­er­able places on Earth. Three mil­lion peo­ple have fled and those who re­main are starv­ing. Just last week, a for­mer jus­tice of the coun­try’s Supreme Court – a regime ap­pointee– de­fected. His choice of refuge? The re­pres­sive US.

We don’t hear a lot about the evils of Ge­orge W Bush these days. At the ex­piry of his sec­ond term, he re­lin­quished power to a suc­ces­sor who promised to undo his pres­i­dency. To­day, we are fix­ated on his suc­ces­sor’s suc­ces­sor – who has vowed to bury the Bush legacy even within his own party.

Although the legacy of Chavez still dom­i­nates Venezuela, we also don’t hear much his rev­o­lu­tion these days ei­ther, other than from the hand­ful of con­ser­va­tive sore thumbs in the me­dia. We rarely even get the ‘‘but it wasn’t real so­cial­ism’’ line trot­ted out to ex­plain the failed Soviet, East Ger­man, Chi­nese, North Korean, Zim­bab­wean, Cuban, Ethiopian and Tan­za­nian ex­per­i­ments. It is sim­ply a non-sub­ject.

Rather telling, don’t you think?


Venezuela has de­scended into chaos since the so-called Bo­li­vian Rev­o­lu­tion.

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