The Corner

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Chavistas and Anti-Chavistas

Antonio Ledezma (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

Antonio Ledezma was mayor of Caracas. He was arrested by the regime (brutally) and imprisoned for almost three years. Then he escaped into exile. Fascinating story. You will want to know about Ledezma. You can meet him on the homepage, here.

Among other things, we talked about Chávez, chavismo, and populism. Is there a “good populism,” as many insist? Well, there is certainly better and worse populism. Chávez was a master, at his kind of politics. He entertained the crowd, in person, on television, and on the radio. He perpetually stoked grievances. He was a victim, you see, and you were a victim, and, together, you would fight your victimizers: the elites, the fancy people, who looked down on you.

This is an extremely effective, and slippery, and dangerous type of politics.

Antonio Ledezma says that Chávez came to power under the “camouflage” of democracy. He was elected fair and square (the first time). Then he proceeded to dismantle democracy, as they do — as populists and strongmen like him do all over. Hugo Chávez had “the magic of seduction,” Ledezma told me. “He played the role of a poor man exploited by the gringos, by the Americans, giving speeches that were full of self-pity and promising that the state would be more paternalistic than ever.”

We are a rich country, Chávez would say, so why should anyone ever want for anything? (Soon, Venezuelans would be wanting for everything.)

I asked Ledezma a question he has heard a thousand times: Venezuela was a model nation, so prosperous, democratic, and advanced. Did he ever think it would slide into tyranny and poverty? And not just poverty, but outright starvation? “No, honestly,” he said. “I thought we would have more and better democracy, not go back to a time that seemed to be gone forever: a time when we had strongmen as leaders, when people would blindly follow the man on the horse, a false messiah who gave populist speeches, claiming to be predestined. Chávez was really good at that.”

And how about Nicolás Maduro, the new chavista dictator (Hugo’s successor)? He is much less good at it, much less talented. “He is an activist,” Ledezma told me, “formed and educated by the Castro brothers. He’s an agitator, very limited intellectually.” Chávez was smart as hell, like it or not. Cunning.

Ledezma spoke of Juan Vicente Gómez, dictator of Venezuela for almost 30 years: 1908 to 1935. “Gómez didn’t know how to read or write, but he knew that he didn’t know, and, because he knew it, he surrounded himself with brilliant people” — people who knew about petroleum, for example, people who knew about state finances. Maduro, on other hand, “is ignorant but thinks he knows. Therefore, he has surrounded himself with people who are unqualified, and the result is a disaster.”

Let me quote from my piece today:

Venezuela is No. 1 in oil reserves — No. 1 in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia and the rest of them. Yet Venezuelans lack oil. The country is No. 6 in gas reserves yet goes without gas. It is No. 10 in water reserves yet lacks drinkable water. This year, some 300,000 children are at risk of death by starvation. Robbers and other criminals operate with impunity. The population is horribly vulnerable, which is why they flee if they can.

I think of the Castros’ Cuba — which at one time had to import sugar. Import sugar. (Cuba is the home of sugar, remember.) You know the old saying that, if the Eskimos went socialist, they’d have to import ice? It’s more than just a joke.

Anyway, Venezuela is important, and you will want to meet Antonio Ledezma — again, here.

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