Another view of Hugo Chavez

I’m a provincial American.  I am not widely traveled, and I get most of my information about foreign countries by reading books and magazine articles.  Over the weekend I read a magazine article about the late Hugo Chavez that made me think that his attacks on civil liberties and his mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy were worse than I had assumed.

The writer, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a journalist who divides his time between Venezuela and the United States, wrote as follows in the Boston Review.

chavez.bolivarIt did not take long for me to realize that, to Chávez, the country’s future did not have much use for its current middle class: hard-working men and women who were treated increasingly like enemies of the state. Much of my family started to leave Venezuela. The first wave was seeking greener pastures; later they would leave out of fear.

Yet while I may have disagreed with Chávez and disliked the direction he was steering the country, my real, personal struggle against the Venezuelan regime began with the demonstrations of May 2007.  Chávez had closed down Radio Caracas Television, thereby silencing the sole remaining national broadcaster critical of his government.  I joined thousands of protestors, mostly students, who descended on Caracas’s Plaza Brión.  While government loudspeakers warned us to remain calm, police fired teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannons into the crowd.

I staggered away from the chaos.  Although a vinegar-soaked rag covering my mouth and nose staved off total physical collapse, the mixture of teargas and sweat had caused me to expel my contact lenses.  Once the twin adrenaline shots of fear and indignation subsided, I faced a long, largely blind, walk home.  Squinting, crying, and filthy, I was reborn.  At that moment, I hated Hugo Chávez.  He wasn’t misguided, he wasn’t a comical buffoon, and he wasn’t a sign of change.   He was horrifying: a violent and cruel despot who ruthlessly crushed dissent, even from unarmed students, and threatened the human rights of anyone who disagreed with his policies.

Click on The Little That Hugo Chavez Got Right for the full article.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

The problem with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela was the lack of the rule of law.  That was the problem both with his crackdowns on his enemies, and his expropriations of businesses.  Everything depended on the will and whim of a single individual.   An authoritarian government with extremely restrictive laws is less bad than an arbitrary government which leaves its citizens in doubt as to what is, and isn’t, against the law.

That is why the U.S. Constitution, even before it included the Bill of Rights amendments, prohibited ex post facto laws, bills of attainder and denial of the right of habeas corpus.   That means the government is forbidden to punish you for something that was legal at the time, it is forbidden to outlaw particular individuals or groups and it is forbidden to arrest people without taking them before a magistrate and telling them what law they are accused of violating.

But I think it is necessary to keep Hugo Chavez’s record in perspective.  Nothing happened in Venezuela during his administration that compared with the reigns of terror in Chile under General Pinochet, Argentina under General Videla or the various U.S.-backed Central American dictatorships.  There were no mass executions, no death squads, no “disappearances”.   Daniel Landsberg-Rodriguez continued to write a weekly column for a Venezuelan newspaper.

Venezuela’s economic growth during the Chavez era was due more to the worldwide rise in oil prices than the Chavez government’s expert management.  But many countries have amassed huge oil wealth without improving the well-being of their people.  Chavez’s Venezuela enjoyed not only good economic growth, but reduction in poverty and improvement in education and living standards.

My final thought about Hugo Chavez (for now) is that he was a leader who did good, but who did good badly.

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