The liberal Left forgets its love for Venezuela
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.