Since Hugo Chavez’s death last week, predictably, the cable news talking head shows and the editorial pages of the major newspapers of record have been full of head-shaking about the dictatorial nature of his regime.
To be sure, the Chavez regime was dictatorial. But another thing is equally sure: The U.S. hates dictators, and the official media vociferously condemn them, only when they don’t toe Washington’s line.
Here’s the plain truth of the matter: The United States has probably installed more puppet dictators in the period since WWII than any other Empire in history. And it played a major role, in particular, in installing dictators that it only noticed were dictatorial when they stopped taking orders from Washington and became an inconvenience. A good example is Saddam Hussein. The CIA backed the 1968 al-Bakr coup that installed Saddam’s wing of the Baath party in power. The United States tacitly endorsed Saddam’s invasion of Iran (you know, that “launched aggressive wars against his neighbors” thing Bush later talked about). The Reagan administration provided Saddam with military intelligence and sold him arms via third-country intermediaries. The Commerce Department licensed the sale of anthrax, as well as insecticides which could be converted into nerve agents. I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke: How did the US government know Saddam had weapons of mass destruction? They’d saved the receipts.
If the US government was providing military advisers and weapons to Hell, and the Devil suddenly stopped doing what he was told by Washington, you can be sure the next day a Presidential Press Secretary would be up behind the podium wringing his hands over all the awful, awful things they’d just discovered were going on in the Infernal Kingdom. And then a thirty-year-old photo would surface of Don Rumsfeld shaking hands with Satan.
And here’s another thing: The U.S. government is pretty good at manufacturing left-wing pariah regimes. It hastens the slide toward totalitarianism within disfavored countries by giving them a foreign enemy. Not only was Castro not a Marxist-Leninist, but he purged communists after his movement took power. He was a left-wing nationalist caudillo whose economic model would’ve lively left market and cooperativist elements in place indefinitely. He gravitated toward the Soviet Union and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist pretty much entirely because of the US blockade, invasion and assassination attempts, and because of the global bipolar superpower dynamic.
The same is likely true of the extent of Hugo Chavez’s gravitation toward Castro, although I think from the very beginning he probably had a much larger innate tendency toward self-aggrandizement and personality cult than Castro.
Let’s be honest about something else, shall we? Chavez was no more authoritarian than anyone Washington would likely have replaced him with. Had the CIA been successful in removing him from power, you can bet your bottom dollar that labor organizers would have been liquidated by the secret police and all the land distributed to land-poor and landless peasants under Chavez’s land reform program incoporated back into the giant latifundia which once held much of Venezuela’s arable land out of cultivation.
And if their attitude toward Pinochet is any indication, the people on the Right who talk the most about “free markets” and condemn Chavez for his economic policies would be solemnly proclaiming that Pinochet II in Caracas, while a political authoritarian, was “economically libertarian.”
Horse hockey! Imprisoning, torturing, murdering and disappearing union organizers, and leaving them in ditches with their faces hacked off, is not “economically libertarian.” Actively helping neo-feudal latifundistas to enclose millions of hectares of vacant and unimproved land out of use while neighboring landless peasants work their land as farm laborers is not “economically libertarian.” Auctioning off state assets built at taxpayer expense in under-the-table sweetheart deals with transnational capital is not “economically libertarian.” Ratifying protectionist “intellectual property” accords that play a central role in putting the entire planet under corporate lockdown is not “economically libertarian.”
No doubt the Pinochet knockoff who replaced Chavez would’ve talked a lot about “market reform” and made nice with some starry-eyed delegations from the University of Chicago. And he’d probably have turned Caracas into a glass tower showcase like Singapore. But his policies would have been, not “free market” reform, but actively intervening in the economy on behalf of corporations, plutocrats and landlords at the expense of workers and peasants.
Intervening in the economy to increase the bargaining power of capital by imprisoning and murdering labor’s bargaining agents, and to maximize the returns on capital, is no more “economically libertarian” than the reverse.
Chavez was a thug and a caudillo — a strongman. But his base of power — as with Julius Caesar and the proletarians of Rome — depended on benefiting the poorest of the poor in Venezuela. And it wasn’t his being a dictator as such, or intervening in the economy as such, that was the unforgivable crime in Washington’s eyes. The unforgivable crime, for Washington, was that Chavez used his dictatorial power on behalf of the poor instead of in service to the usual suspects: The landed and capitalist interests normally promoted by Washington’s puppet dictators.
But even if his lust for power and adulation led him to benefit the poor for a change, the fact remains that Chavez was a thug. Whatever good was done for those living in the slums of Caracas came at the expense of an entire society increasingly centered on his personality cult, and of hellish prisons full of dissidents from the genuine Left and working class movement.
Chavez, like Caesar, improved the material conditions of the dispossessed in ways they wouldn’t otherwise under the same broad conditions of power. But he didn’t change the fundamental structure of power. While Chavez made the landless peasants and the denizens of Caracas’s slums considerably better off than they would’ve been under the kind of fake “free market” regime Bush or Obama would install, they remained worse off than they would be in a society where economic justice was achieved by horizontal self-organization and voluntary cooperation among the people themselves.
The very people most active in pursuing such a vision of self-organized liberation were actively thwarted by Chavez — many of them rotting away in his prisons. As I learned from C4SS comrade Charles Johnson, Chavez suppressed the independent labor movement, put Bolivarian cronies in charge of yellow-dog unions in nationalized industries, and “employ[ed] strike-breaking tactics that would have made Frick proud.” And his massive distribution of oil revenue to the urban poor came from an oil industry dependent on “constant campaigns of state dispossession and police violence against indigenous communities in oil-rich regions.”
Chavez’s prisons are full of people who would achieve genuine social justice through self-organization and popular empowerment, rather than build a house of cards atop an unsustainable oil boom and the personality cult of one man. As the El Libertario collective pointed out, the very events since Chavez’s death illustrate just how fragile and unsustainable a social model centered on one man was (“Anarchist Statement on the Death of Hugo Chavez,” March 6, 2013). “The myth of redemption of the poor through the sharing of oil revenues, a popular religion with political characteristics around his person, [and] the devastation of the autonomy of social movements in Venezuela …” (Rafael Uzcátegui, “Hugo Chávez en 4 preguntas,” Periodico El Libertario, March 7, 2013).
To the extent that Chavez genuinely helped the landless peasants and the urban lumpenproletariat, he did so, not by abolishing the preexisting forms of coercive state-enforced monopoly on which the rents of capital and land depended, but through counter-coercion.
In the words of Venezuelan anarchist Rafael Uzcátegui, editor of the El Libertario newspaper in Caracas, “what has been done with [oil revenues] is not to attack the structural causes of poverty, but to implement a series of social policies … which are palliatives for the society poverty and which are not structurally transforming it” (“Venezuela: Interview with Rafael Uzcátegui,” Infoshop, July 6, 2012).
And unlike a genuine structural reform, which would abolish state-enforced monopolies and privilege and result in a spontaneous redistribution of wealth through market mechanisms, Chavez’s policies depend on ongoing interventions by a strongman that are unlikely to long survive his death.
If you want to celebrate the alleviation of poverty that came about as a side-effect of Chavez’s lust for power, go ahead. If you want to celebrate the fact that the Bolivarian autocracy, in contrast the US-backed dictatorships of the past, instigated a South American revolt against Yanqui influence, I’ll be glad to join you, for the same reason I’d have hoped for Poland’s military regime to defeat Hitler in September 1939. I, too, prefer a world in which the power of the global hegemon is weakened by rival states.
But let’s not rest our hopes for social justice on the whims of strongmen and their personality cults. That’s something we need to bury in the ground along with Chavez.
It’s time to pursue a vision of justice and freedom we achieve by our own actions, through peaceful cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity with our friends and neighbors — not as a gift that depends on the temporary benevolence of a dictator.