Let’s face it; Hugo Chavez was just another despot!
Posted Thursday, March 21 2013 at 02:00
Just like many other African dictators before him have done, Chavez hid behind a façade of democratic trappings to legitimise his regime and concentrated enormous power in his hands. He, like them, built his power through a series of seemingly free and fair elections but whose authenticity was often immediately disputed…
In his article, “Homage to Hugo Chavez, a man of the people”, published in the Sunday Monitor of March 17, my senior colleague, retired ambassador Harold Acemah, quotes Prof. Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College, as having said of Chavez: “Ever heard of a regime that gets stronger the more opposition it faces? Welcome to Venezuela, where the charismatic President Hugo Chavez is practising a new style of authoritarianism. Part provocateur, part CEO and part an electoral wizard, Chavez has updated tyranny for today.”
Mr Acemah disagrees with such a description and goes ahead to extravagantly heap accolades onto the late Chavez whom he says was “one of the icons and political giants of the 20th and 21st century”. I usually agree with Acemah’s insightfully graphic assessments and/or empirical reviews of political situations in the local and international arena but I am afraid this time I partly disagree with him! I think Professor Corrales’ statement was invariably underpinned by empirical facts.
To his most ardent Venezuelan backers and international socialist disciples, Chavez may have been a hero because of his earlier commitment to redressing social injustice and inequality. When he entered politics, his belligerent style and straight-talking populist charisma served him well as tools in a country characterised by widespread discontent. His fierce criticism of the old political order and familiar promise of a fundamental change in the true mold of Latin America’s celebrated revolutionary and liberator Simon Bolivar appealed to a wide section of the poor.
But according to vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Michael Shifter, his autocratic and megalomaniacal tendencies significantly undermined governance and the democratic process. According to Shifter, regardless of whether the conditions of Venezuela’s poor marginally improved or worsened under Chavez, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Model he embellished was not a sustainable model for the country.
True, Chavez’s combative oil diplomacy enhanced his influence but ill-contrived land reform policies and measures characterised by occasional confiscations of private property were ideologically symbolic but to those familiar with Latin American Studies, lacked economic and political rationale.
Just like many other African dictators before him have done, Chavez hid behind a façade of democratic trappings to legitimise his regime and concentrated enormous power in his hands. He, like them, built his power through a series of seemingly free and fair elections but whose authenticity was often immediately disputed by the internal opposition and the international community, including a 1999 referendum for a new constitution that allowed unlimited terms and consecutive re-election. Never mind that, a fellow Latin American; Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also described Chavez as ‘an illusionist who could pass into history books as just another despot’!
His authoritarian tendencies notwithstanding, I too would allude to the fact that he was a skilful politician who managed to establish himself as a global and regional actor that could not be ignored in the often turbulent waters of Latin American vis-à-vis US relations. Did you know that despite his defiance for the US, Venezuelan oil continued to flow to the US? It is easy for his detractors to underrate his influence and wisdom but using oil money and his close friendship with both Castros, Washington’s nemeses for half a century, he attempted to build a counterbalance to US influence in Latin America and had succeeded to some significant degree.
The resurgence of Socialist Internationalism similar to that which pervaded student politics in the 1960s can also be attributed to Chavez. Economic gain is one of the determinants of leadership and human relations and it is possible many unscrupulous Latin American leaders associated with and publicly indulged in praising him as well as accepted his attractive economic deals without endorsing his dubious regional agenda or ambitions.
Mr Baligidde is a former diplomat.