Hugo Chavez

In 1984, I spent several months in Nicaragua, trying to write several articles on the war between the U.S.-backed contras and the Sandinistas. I had been ostensibly sent there by the magazine Mother Jones, but the article–on Americans living there and working for the Sandinistas–was never published, for reasons I cannot remember. In any event, the experience was incredibly memorable, an endless series of eye-opening adventures. I went there with an open mind, but left with a depressing impression, as if history were a kind of revolving door in which we are all trapped.

What I mean is the following: the Sandinistas were reacting against the extreme disparities of wealth and poverty that had been part of the country for decades, and were heightened by the Somoza period. In exchange for being given essentially untrammeled power to rule the country, the Sandinistas gave the people health care, education, and a sense of participating in the construction of a new country. This participation was heightened by the numerous public events that were constantly staged–parades, speeches, anniversaries for this and that, all of which were very seductive. (I was there when the Pope visited Nicaragua and the stage-managed event was unbelievably entertaining.)

In addition, there were all of these community councils that everyone could belong to and were there to give local control to communities. The reality, however, was that any overall challenge to the government would not be tolerated. In the tense atmosphere of the war with the Contras, anyone who did not buy the party line was seen as a counter revolutionary and completely marginalized. You could dissent about the amount of butter sent to your community, but not about anything larger and ideological.

I knew that what I was witnessing there–the good and the bad–could not possibly last. As they entrenched themselves in power, the Sandinistas had to engage in a double game: playing up the underdog status of their fight against the US and being on the side of the poor, while strongarming their way politically and tamping down any real form of democracy. They would have to turn themselves into an armed state to keep this up, which they did. And as time went by, the public would grow disillusioned. There are only so many parades and public speeches that can keep up enthusiasm for a revolution. Eventually various forces would converge to weaken their hold on power, and they would topple. And nothing would remain of the Sandinistas, like the Assyrian Empire and Nineveh. It doesn’t matter that Daniel Ortega is back in power. He has returned in a different guise, and the Sandinista revolution is over.

It reminds me of the Grand Inquisitor chapter in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor essentially wants to offer humanity bread and security in exchange for freedom–freedom of will, religion, power. Humanity will now be fed and clothed, which is essential to any kind of progress. But Dostoyevsky argues that there is something much deeper and even perverse in the human spirit. That this simple bargain will never work, as it did not in the Soviet Union, as it will inevitably fail in Cuba. You cannot fool the people continuously with bread and circuses. The desire for freedom will eventually rise up from within.

I am also reminded of Machiavelli and the notion of the armed prophet. The prophet preaches change, radical change. When or if he comes to power, he must realize that he cannot hold on to this power simply with fiery speeches. If he becomes truly democratic he unleashes a series of revolutions, as occurred in the beginning of the French Revolution, with endless groups now fighting to emerge in the power vacuum. No, to hold on to power now that he is the leader, the prophet must arm himself, as Robespierre did. And in becoming the armed prophet he must inevitably turn repressive. And once he turns repressive, his power base narrows and he must turn even more repressive, until he is gotten rid of. The Armed Prophet will not last, unless like Jesus Christ he initiates an army of believers, whose weapons are religion and ideology instead of guns. But that is another story.

Which brings me to Hugo Chavez. I know Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But I think it goes now even beyond farce, whatever that would be, something resembling the feeling of being trapped in a revolving door. Mr. Chavez comes from a military background, pure and simple. He once staged a coup in the 90s that did not succeed. He came to power in a democratic fashion, not through an armed revolution like the Sandinistas. But now he is in the same position that we see time and again. In exchange for political freedom, he will give his people bread and circuses. He will transform his war into a crusade. American leftists, drawn to the spectacle of it all, will trumpet Chavez as some kind of model, as a hero. They will visit his country like they do Cuba.

In the process, he will create a one-party state. Flush with oil revenues, he will keep Venezuelans relatively happy and distracted. This has happened before in Venezuela, I believe in the 1970s. But oil revenues will fluctuate wildly, particularly in the current climate, and when those revenues dry up, and enthusiasm wanes, and he resorts to greater repression, pointing his finger at the US will start to wear very thin. He will be deposed somehow or other, Venezuela will swing to the right, and in 30 years another caudillo will emerge who will try it again. In the meantime, American leftists will find another depressing spectacle to raise up as the new this or that….

Could there possibly be a way out of this revolving door? What if Chavez were to start from the proposition that he may not last long in power, but that is fine with him. He is a born risk-taker. He will grant his country true democracy. He will not work to create one party, and instead will encourage opposition. His main goal will be to include the people in the process, even if it means turning him out of office in a few years. He will be a populist in fact, not in speeches. He will try to create a really new model for Latin America that is more inclusive and that does not return to the inevitable caudillismo. He will also not have the whole edifice resting on oil revenues and will be more careful in spreading it out–stop giving to Bolivia and Cuba and Iran. Take care of Venezuela, build a big power base and a model that others will want to replicate. Have numerous plebiscites in which he gauges the will of the people and responds to it. Create local governing boards that have real power to challenge the authorities, if they see fit. Then leave power when he sees that it is working. Go out a hero.

I could elaborate on this alternative model, but the main point is that this won’t happen. He is the charismatic leader that believes in the force of his personality. He thrives on constant conflict with Bush and the US, using us as a foil to whip up hysteria. In my mind there is something strangely unhinged about him, and his need for insult a sign of someone who is way too emotional to guide such a delicate instrument as a revolution. All of this talk of the Paris Communes and creating a real socialist state is pure nonsense. It is political power he is after, concentrated in a party and a charismatic ruler. And when the masses tire of him and his charisma, he will be deposed.

When this happens, people like Chomsky or Gore Vidal will try to sell it as if the US were the ones behind any failure on his part, but the truth is that he is responsible for it. Unless you believe that history is some kind of tidal wave that carries us along, or that there is something in our nature that makes us repeat these depressing mistakes.

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