Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan not-so-strongman

In the early part of the previous decade, I was invited by some friends to participate in a discussion group on issues in American foreign policy.   Our group used background materials on different discussion topics provided by the Foreign Policy Association, an organization of present and former government policy-makers and high-ranking academics, whose stated goal is to better inform the American public on foreign policy issues.

Hugo Chavez in Brazil

Hugo Chavez in Brazil

One of the questions we were invited to discuss was what to do about Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman.  I had never given any thought to Hugo Chavez, but it was explained to me that he was taking on too much power and was a threat to Venezuelan liberty and democracy.  I didn’t see why that was something that I, as an American, should be concerned with.   If Venezuelans thought he was abusing the power of his office, they could vote him out.   They certainly understood their situation than I ever could by reading a few magazine articles.

I thought President George W. Bush was abusing the power of his office, and I hoped Americans would vote him out in 2004.  This didn’t happen, but I don’t think that the situation would have been helped by foreign interference.

I now know why the Foreign Policy Association was so upset with Hugo Chavez.  As Greg Palast and other journalists have shown, it partly because he doubled Venezuela’s royalties on sales of oil produced in that country, but also because he got Venezuela out from under the thumb of the International Monetary Fund and the Wall Street banks.  Chavez withdrew the money Venezuela had on deposit with U.S. and international banks, paid off its IMF debt and used Venezuela’s oil income to bail out other Latin American countries.

Everyone I’ve read agrees that Chavez done a lot to increase the well-being of the Venezuelan people.   The poor and working people of Venezuela are better-fed, better-housed and better-educated than they were prior to 1999, when Chavez became President, and the Venezuelan economy has grown.  His critics say that he has failed to maintain the physical infrastructure of Caracas and of Venezuela’s oil industry—in other words, that he may have invested in Venezuela’s human capital, but neglected its physical capital.

The best rejoiner to that was made, perhaps inadvertently, in an article by the Associated Press business reporter immediately following Chavez’s death.

Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs.  But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.

via Associated Press.

Whatever you may say about Hugo Chavez, he did not waste his country’s wealth on status symbols and conspicuous consumption for the elite, as is being done by the hereditary Arab monarchs of the Persian Gulf.

Chavez was friends with other Latin American leaders, from Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Communist dictator, to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the respected progressive reformer who was then President of Brazil.   Their common denominator was a determination to be independent of U.S. foreign policy and foreign business corporations.

Hugo Chavez election poster

Hugo Chavez poster

While Chavez admired Castro, I don’t think he took Castro for a role model.  Chavez did, it is true, force the Venezuelan newspapers and TV broadcasters, who were unanimously against him, to carry his speeches and broadcasts.  He threatened opposition politicians whom he accused of receiving foreign money.

I don’t agree with this, but I can understand the frustration of a political leader when the entire news media, not just part of it, is in the hands of the equivalent of Rupert Murdoch.  I think it would have been better for the Venezuelan government to create an official newspaper and broadcasting station and let the private companies alone or, better still, to empower labor unions, farm cooperatives, universities and other people’s organizations to create their own news media.   In any case, the opposition press and broadcasters were not silenced.  Chavez had a large and vocal opposition.

He risked his power in contested elections, which Castro never would have done.  Ex-President Jimmy Carter certified that Venezuela’s elections were real elections, not the phoney kind in which the ruler gets 95 percent or more of the vote.

The President of Venezuela, unlike current and recent Presidents of the United States, never ordered the invasion of any foreign country.  He never claimed the power to arrest and torture people, nor to order the killing of people, both inside and outside Venezuela, without any legal process, based on his sole determination that they are terrorists.

If you want to criticize Chavez, it would be for letting things get out of hand, in a way that Castro would not have tolerated.  Venezuela has a high and growing rate of violent crime.  Chavez invited poor people to take over vacant office buildings and unused farm land.  Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker wrote an article about his efforts to find out what goes on inside.  His article implies, though it does not prove, that they are like public housing projects in the United States that have been taken over by criminal gangs.

The American political figure that Hugo Chavez most resembles is Huey Long, a radical populist governor of Louisiana in the early 1930s.  He played brass-knuckle politics and was ridiculed as a buffoon, but he did a lot to curb the power of corporations and improve the life of people in Louisiana.  But Long based everything on the cult of his own personality, and did not build any institutions to perpetuate his achievements beyond his death.

Note: I made a number of small revisions and additions to this post some hours after it was originally posted.


I have never visited Venezuela, I don’t know any Venezuelans and my knowledge of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela is still limited to having read a few magazine articles.  This doesn’t qualify me to tell Venezuelans what to think or do, but I think they provide information worth sharing with other Americans.  Here are links to articles I read recently that I recommend.

Covering Hugo Chavez: “If Only He Governed As Well As He Campaigned”, an interview with British journal Rory Carroll in Mother Jones.   This is a balanced assessment of the pluses and minuses of the Chavez administration.

Hugo Chavez and the Global Poverty Conspiracy by Greg Palast.  This explains just why Chavez’s policies were so threatening not only to the oil industry, but to Wall Street.

The Little That Hugo Chavez Got Right by Daniel Landsberg-Rodriguez for the Boston GlobeReview.  [Added 3/17/13]

Hugo Chavez and the Expanding Slums of Venezuela, a summary of an article by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker about the deterioration of Caracas.   You have to pay to read the full article, or else find a copy of the Jan. 28 issue of the New Yorker in the periodical room of a library.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Jon Lee Anderson, a critique which questions the accuracy of Anderson’s writing [Added 4/9/13]

Hugo Chavez, 1954-2013 by Jon Lee Anderson for the New Yorker.  This obituary makes a fact-based case against Chavez, but I still think Chavez did more good than harm.

On Venezuela, The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson Fails at Arithmetic by Keane Bhatt of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) [Added 4/19/13]

Why We Need the New Yorker to Correct Its Error on Venezuelan Inequality by Jim Nauveckas for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) [Added 4/19/13]

The Complicated Legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by Jens Gleusing and Matheiu Bohr on Spiegel Online, the English-language web site of the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Timeline of Expropriations: What’s Next, Venezuela?  The worst thing about this list is its seeming randomness.   The wealthy elite of Venezuela still live in luxury, but I can sympathize with a business manager or owner who is paralyzed by uncertainty about what will happen next.

Vaya Con Dios, Hugo by Greg Palast.  This is a eulogy for Hugo Chavez by a friend and admirer which underlines his achievements.

The Secret Rise of 21st Century Democracy by Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese of TruthOut.   Flowers and Zeese make the case for Hugo Chavez as a champion of political freedom and grass-roots democracy.

Why post-Chavez Venezuela won’t be an ally anytime soon by political scientist Daniel Drezner.

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2 Responses to “Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan not-so-strongman”

  1. Jeff Nguyen Says:

    Its nice to find a balanced look at Chavez, the corporate media has been derogatory and borderline racist in its descriptions of Chavez.


  2. Chico Says:

    Reblogged this on The Deliberate Observer.


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