Chávez and his movement began to encroach on the institutions of the State and of the press, so therefore he is a Tyrant or a Dictator. A more nuanced take on this theme is to point to areas where Chavismo has fallen short of what progressives would expect in a model Western state. This approach is usually blind to the mote in its own eye. Two rights don’t make a wrong, of course, but conversely, we should reflect before casting the first stone.
The second narrative is that Chávez dangerously threatens capitalism. Perhaps that one has force too: it’s often argued that Venezuela has simultaneously surfed the rise of oil prices and rejected the ideology of markets. This theme has a tendency to collapse into the ultimate Cold War binary – Chávez = Communist. Of course, in a globalised market, socialism works within capitalism. Indeed, one of the structural reasons for the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European regimes was their need to take on huge debt in the 1970s and 1980s. It was simply impossible to run an autarchic economy closed off from international finance. Along with the massive distance between rulers and their peoples, and egregious human rights breaches, this is one key cause for the ‘Fall of Communism’.
Implicit in this reading of Chavismo is a claim that socialism is dead. I think Latin American experience demonstrates that it is not. Socialism is always present as a tendency within capitalism. It doesn’t go away when Evil Empires fall, or through wishing it absent.
There’s also, quite often among those who would be more supportive of Chávez, a temptation to ignore the distributional implications of his policy, or downplay them, and to focus on his charisma and populism. But, again, we are dealing with contested terms whose meaning is not identical in, say, Holland, Australia and Venezuela.
To my mind, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser risks falling into this trap in what is nevertheless an interesting analysis on Open Democracy. But she is right to point out that the meaning of democracy is itself not uncontested.
I write all this neither to praise Hugo Chávez nor to damn him. I don’t advocate Chavismo as a model for Australian politics. I write it to suggest that we look at what has been achieved, and what has gone wrong, in a spirit of truth. And that we look at what is at stake in the various themes that dominate the interpretation of Chavez’ death and his continuing legacy.
On this, Guy Rundle writing in New Matilda is very interesting:
Between Latin America’s poor and those of the West there exists a division — poverty for many of the former means, or meant, chronic hunger and improvised shelter, a denial of basic life, while for the latter it is impoverished life, without the urgency of imminent total desperation. Making Venezuela’s poor invisible relies on the fact that such poverty on a mass scale has been largely forgotten in the West.
As such poverty returns, especially in the US, and it looks increasingly unlikely that neoliberalism will generate its own recovery, any real consideration of Chavez’s program is forbidden. What is truly remarkable about how his death has been treated is the degree to which the right has simply jettisoned any real concern for the poor. This marks a genuine moral decline from the “New Right” period of Thatcher-Reagan, which was constituted by its willingness to contest a left vision on a shared value, the desired universality of means of life.
It also suggests a measure of defensiveness. A more confident neoliberal movement would have taken apart Chavez’s regime piece by piece on its own terms. Instead, it is the last thing they want to talk about, lost in the kitsch of red shirts and Alo Presidente! Many of them are rejoicing at Chavez’s demise, assuming that the movement that took his name will now splutter and die. Instead, it may well be that it will consolidate and rationalise, that its next leadership will back away from Chavez’s charismatic and idiosyncratic style, and begin to address some of the structural problems they have inherited.
That would threaten a fresh nightmare for the right — a viable democratic socialism, a system where a private sector sits within the framework of a larger public and co-operative sector — just as the West enters a new period of stagnation.