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Whitewashing the Record of Hugo Chávez

A supporter of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro holds a portrait of Hugo Chávez at a campaign rally in Caracas, May 1, 2018. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

It is depressing but not altogether surprising that Hugo Chávez still retains some support in Western intellectual life. The ongoing destruction of Venezuelan society should have been enough to discredit his apologists, but unfortunately it has not been so.

The latest attempt at rehabilitating Chávez’s legacy comes in the form of a New York Times op-ed by Eva Golinger, one of the late president’s most trusted advisers. “The Hugo Chávez I knew,” writes Golinger, “believed in social justice, equality and fundamental freedoms.” Against popular conceptions of Chávez as a quasi-dictator, Golinger asserts that Venezuela’s authoritarian turn has occurred only under Nicolás Maduro. Chávez “made many mistakes,” Golinger concedes, but nonetheless he “had enormous empathy for the poor and the marginalized,” he “made great strides during his presidency,” he “[helped] millions of people,” and he even “pardoned many of his adversaries, even those who attempted to overthrow him.”

Golinger makes little effort at addressing the substantive question of whether Chávez contributed to Venezuela’s degeneration into dictatorship. Here is all she offers in the way of an answer:

Did he have authoritarian tendencies? His military background left him with a firm belief in hierarchy. The longer he remained in power, the more entrenched he became, which is why term limits and checks and balances are essential to a healthy democracy.

Term limits are indeed important elements of democratic societies — elements which in 2009 Chávez abolished. Dislodging incumbents is difficult enough in advanced democracies; it is even more difficult in countries with little institutional accountability, where the government can fund massive clientelist programs to shore up support whenever it needs to. As Chávez well knew, removing term limits would have allowed him to become president for life. Only his premature death from cancer at age 58 prevented him from taking full advantage of this institutional change. Chávez undermined and destroyed the very mechanisms Golinger singles out as essential to democracies, and yet she musters scant criticism of his political projects.

Then there is the matter of “checks and balances,” to which Golinger also alludes. It is hard to overstate the extent to which Chávez obliterated checks on presidential power during his tenure. Shortly after coming into office in 1998, Chávez began implementing steps to take control of PDVSA, the national oil company, which was then autonomously run. Little by little, he fired its top management and replaced it with cronies. Then in 2002 he fired some 18,000 PDVSA workers — around 40 percent of its workforce — and had them slowly replaced with more of his backers. Apart from ruining PDVSA, these policies massively expanded the president’s power by giving him an endless source of funds to use for narrow political goals.

Chávez expanded the political power of the presidency as well. He packed the Venezuelan supreme court, took over the CNE (the body that is supposed to oversee elections and ensure their fairness), undermined press freedom by shutting down the opposition’s television stations, politicized the military by promoting officers based on loyalty rather than competence, and through a long sequence of constitutional changes transferred most decision making power from the legislature to the presidency. Such details are not mentioned in Golinger’s essay.

Nicolás Maduro’s autocracy, then, did not merely come into existence ex nihilo. Chávez bequeathed him an obsequious legislature, a loyal judiciary, and a personal oil company with which he (Maduro) could exert dictatorial power. Indeed, Maduro’s transgressions against liberal-democratic principles occur only under a specific institutional context that Chávez largely created. If Golinger’s article proves one thing, therefore, it is that one can continue to be a defender of Hugo Chávez only by committing violence against the historical record.

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