Thursday, March 07, 2013


"Hugo Chávez, who has died at the age of 58, was the most controversial and quixotic Latin American leader of recent years. His 14-year sway over Venezuela marked a high point in the rise of South America’s left. But just as his highly personalised “21st century socialist” revolution was inextricably linked with the charismatic populist, so too is it unlikely to survive his death, either in his own country or in the region. That is despite Venezuelans’ willingness as recently as October to grant him a fourth term as president – although by a margin narrower than the previous time. He won re-election with 55 per cent of the vote, although he was too ill to attend his official inauguration in January. His death leaves the majority of his compatriots bereft of a leader who, for all his foibles, retained their confidence.... When he first came to power, the price of oil was less than $20 a barrel; by 2006, it was more than $60 and rising. Chávez was able to pour money into social programmes and engage in a burst of petrodiplomacy – subsidising like-minded governments not only in Cuba but also Bolivia and Nicaragua in exchange for their political support. It was all part of his dream to unite Latin America. Yet his approach did more to fracture than unite the continent: relations with neighbouring Colombia deteriorated after Bogotá claimed Chávez was supporting leftist rebels on its territory. Ambitious regional schemes including a Latin American development fund failed to get off the ground. The enthusiasm of the “pink tide” of leftist leaders then being elected across Latin America ebbed as the failings and inefficiencies of his retrograde and statist model became more apparent – especially when measured against the relative success of more pragmatic social democrats such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He became a postmodern caudillo – adept at using state television and social media such as Twitter; prone to posturing, long speeches and a narcissistic conflation of his life story with Venezuelan history that exasperated many. At one regional summit, King Juan Carlos of Spain famously asked him: “Why don’t you just shut up?” At home, Chávez’s governing style became more impulsive and authoritarian. He subordinated institutions such as the supreme court, the military, parliament and the central bank. Yet even as he gathered more power into his hands, Chávez appeared to lose himself in philosophical abstractions while failing to counter violent crime, high inflation and collapsing public services. Nationalising swaths of the economy only increased its vulnerability. The global downturn triggered in 2008 hit Venezuela worse than other countries in the region. Incompetence, inefficiency and corruption eventually did more to undermine support for Chávez than any supposed imperialist plot to unseat him ever could. The decisive moment, however, came in June 2011 when he disappeared from view for almost a month, reappearing in a sombre television broadcast from Cuba to say he had been operated on to remove a cancerous tumour. Back in Caracas shortly afterwards, he declared his arrival to be part of a “supreme return” that would bring him another election win this year and then extend his rule until 2021 – the bicentenary of the defeat of Spanish troops at the battle of Carabobo. But his entreaties last year for God to give him “100 crosses, your crown of thorns, but don’t take me yet – I still have things to do” did not spare him for long. Like his hero Bolívar, Chávez might have concluded: he who serves the revolution ploughs the sea. His legacy is a country riven by revolutionary rancour that suffers from weakened institutions and a diminished economy; a fuzzy political ideology akin to the Peronism of Argentina".
Benedict Mander, "Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan President." The Financial Times. 5 March 2013, in
"In these circumstances, the shadow of a tremendous helplessness and impotence falls today over most of the Latin American world. The handicaps to progress are written in human blood and in the tracings of geography; and in neither case are they readily susceptible of obliteration. They lie heavily across the path of all human progress; and the answers which people have suggested to them thus far have been feeble and unpromising. These bitter realities are ones which people cannot face fully constantly. Human nature, with its insistence that life must go on, represses the consciousness of these things, turns away from them in healthy revulsion, and seeks to balance them out by over-compensation. Thus the inordinate splendor and pretense of the Latin American cities can be no other than an attempt to compensate for the wretchedness and squalor of the hinterlands from which they spring. And, in the realm of individual personality, this subconscious recognition of the failure of group effort finds its expression in an exaggerated self-centeredness and egotism--in a pathetic urge to create the illusion of desperate courage, supreme cleverness, and a limitless virility where the more constructive virtues are so conspicuously lacking. For the foreign representative, this presents a terrible dilemma. In an environment which ill supports the naked face of reality, he cannot get very far with the sober and obvious concepts which are his stock of trade in other parts of the world. He must take these neuroses as the essence of the medium in which his activity must proceed; and he must bear in mind that every impulse which he gives to his activity must, if it is to be successful, find its translation into the terms of a world where geography and history are alike tragic, but where no one must ever admit it. Thus the price of diplomatic popularity, and to some extent of diplomatic success, is constant connivance at the maintenance of a staggering and ubiquitous fiction: the fiction of extraordinary human achievement, personal and collective, subjective and objective, in a society where the realities are almost precisely the opposite, and where the reasons behind these realities are too grim to be widely or steadily entertained. Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe: not the systematized, purposeful make- believe of Russian communism, but a highly personalized, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process. Confronted with this phenomenon, many non-Latin diplomatists first pause in dismay; for they see that only by accepting it can they achieve many of their purposes. Yet to plunge deeply into it, as many finally do, is to lose one's self in a sort of Alice's Wonderland, where normal relations between cause and effect have lost their validity, where nothing may be judged on its actual merits, where no idea has more than a relative integrity, where real things receive recognition only by their relation to the diseased and swollen human ego, where nothing is ever wholly finished because things are never more than symbols and there is no end to those things which are the objects of the symbols".
George Frost Kennan, "Memorandum on Latin America." 29 March 1950, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Volume II, (1977), pp. 598-599.
"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce".
Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. (1852).
The passing away of Hugo Chavez is a moment akin to the passing away in the past twelve years or so of such figures as Assad Pere, Saddam Hussein, and Colonel Gaddafi: the passing away of men who represent a mode of politics and governance which had run out of steam. Which and who no longer served any positive purpose (if they ever did, which is questionable for all of them...). In the cases of our trio from the Near and Middle East, they at least represented the second-wave (in generational terms) of Arab Nationalism. With all of the peculiarities which that movement, especially in its 'ruling regime' vintage gave birth to: massive corruption, cynicism, mis-development and under-development, and of course repeated military defeat. No wonder that by the late 1970's / early 1980's the tide of history had commencing moving in another direction than what they represented. No matter: like a living corpse, these men and others continued to play out the role that history had assigned to them to the very last. In the case of Assad Pere, the by far most intelligent of them all, he died peacefully in his bed, having managed to stage-manage the succession of his son Bashar. In the cases of the other two, not being as intelligent, they both ended up dying horrible deaths, after attempting to survive the downfall of their regimes. Hugo Chavez's passing away is in some strange perverted fashion, similar to these other events. Not of course that he was an Arab Nationalist. Merely that like his near contemporaries in the Near and Middle East, Chavez, represented a politics and for that matter an economics whose time has indeed come and gone. Gone that is many, many years ago. Chavez was not a second-wave, Latin American nationalist and populist from the school of Juan Peron, he was too young for that. Chavez was deliberately I would say, a throw back, a reversion to something earlier, something which had been fully tested and found wanting. Chavez did his country a disservice by playing a farcical role, which outside of his own country, few took seriously. Perhaps as George Kennan cogently put it, all Latin American politics deals in make-believe and fantasies. If so, one may be tempted to say that in the case of Hugo Chavez, the element of phantom, was almost one-hundred percent, with reality a mere one-percent. In short, once may conclude by saying that the only proper response to Chavez and his burned-out school of politics as played-out farce is to repeat the words of the regicide Oliver Cromwell, to the Rump Parliament:
"Depart, I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God go!"


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