Friday, June 22, 2007

Hugo Chávez: Petro-dollar revolutionary?

Hugo Chávez has made a splash in the world news over the past several months. Last September, he stood at the podium in the United Nations and called George Bush the devil. In January he was granted special powers to rule Venezuela by decree. During the past few months he has closed down a television station unfriendly to his rule. This week his government announced a ban on public demonstrations during the Copa America soccer championship to be held in Venezuela starting next week. During his upcoming visit to Moscow, Chávez is expected to purchase a fleet of submarines. Much like his counter-part in Washington, he thrives on the threat (real or perceived) from external enemies.

Marc Cooper calls our attention to an article by Joaquín Villalobos in The Nation about Hugo Chávez. Villalobos was the founder in 1972 and main leader of Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo in El Salvador. In the 1980, the group joined with other opposition groups to form the FMLA during El Salvador’s civil war. He became the principal military strategist for the FMLN during that conflict. This is all to say he is well versed in revoluntionary politics.

Villalobos is something less than impressed by Chávez whom he sees as trying to buy a revolution with oil money:
What Chávez has got wrong is his belief that he has made a revolution when in fact he's simply won some elections. And even those victories are more attributable to an arrogant, bejeweled opposition that lacks mass adherents than to Chávez. This has allowed Chávez to dominate some state institutions and to change some of the rules of the game, but it doesn't give him the leverage needed to impose the sort of drastic ideological sea change he clearly intends.

In Venezuela there has been no revolutionary rupture, as there was in Cuba and Nicaragua, two countries where there was no democratic history. In Cuba the change was violent and encompassing; all of the institutions were recast. And to date there is no real Cuban opposition--nor are there real elections, freedom of the press or private property. In Nicaragua the change was equally violent, and though mistreated, the institutions of press freedom, political opposition, elections and private property all survived.

Venezuela might be experiencing a period of extreme polarization and social conflict, but that is not a revolution. In revolutionary times, violence becomes prevalent, first in the form of rebellion and later in the form of counterrevolution. So far in Venezuela, political violence has been more verbal than material.

Forty years of peaceful transitions of government power created a democratic culture among Venezuelans that has, fortunately until now, made violence unnecessary. The rule of law might be weak, but there is nevertheless the rule of law. The mistake made by the opposition in the attempted coup of 2002 was precisely to undervalue this democratic tradition. Overthrowing governments is no easy task, nor is peacefully modifying the basic pillars on which they are built. A revolutionary rupture creates a situation of great social exaltation that--for better and worse--opens up spaces to change many things, including prevailing ideologies and cultural traditions. But short of revolution, these things are difficult to change.

Chávez lacks a revolutionary party and instead depends on a fragmented political structure rife with different ideologies. To his right is the military, to his left some intellectuals and below him a politically diverse base. Converting this into a unified party would mean butting heads with a lot of local bosses who like to disagree. Chavismo has accomplished something important by giving power and identity to thousands of Venezuelans who had been marginalized, but it is not cohesive, either
ideologically or historically. Rather, it is held together by petrodollars.

Nor does Chávez have a revolutionary army. On the contrary, the army has defeated him twice (1992 and 2002). The complicity of the army with Chávez today rests solely on weapons purchases, and that is much more about corruption than about preparing for war. It's exactly this sort of privileged corruption that closes the path to authentic revolutionary change. The Venezuelan military will neither kill nor die for Hugo Chávez.

Fidel Castro survived all the many attempts on his life. Daniel Ortega led a successful insurrection in Nicaragua and Evo Morales made a swift transition from the barricades to the presidency of Bolivia. Chávez, by contrast, sells oil to the Americans; on two occasions he surrendered to his enemies with no fight; and he currently sleeps with an enemy army. This pushes him to engage in public provocations in order to burnish his revolutionary credentials, as he has by insulting George W. Bush. Attacks strengthen Chávez. Tolerance weakens him. Chávez needs external enemies to help him hide the corruption of his own functionaries, the incompetence of his government, the division among his supporters and the lack of security in the streets of Caracas.

With his latest acts Chávez has turned the process of accumulation of forces against himself and has suddenly revitalized a demoralized opposition. Maybe he will be able to make some more changes in Venezuela. But he will never be able to get rid of elections. And as long as there are elections, there will be no permanent majorities, no fraud so great as to be insurmountable, no set of alliances that are eternal. Oil money can help Chávez do many things--but it will never be enough to buy himself a revolution.
You can read the entire article here.

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