Confronting Hugo Chávez

Hugo Chávez is an infamous demagogue. But his support for Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, illustrates how he is also a real threat to the virtues of liberal democracy.

How do you solve a problem like Venezuela?
Dane Vallejo
On 29 April 2011 10:31

Just over two months ago, I wrote a piece that I called, ‘The Dictator Club’. In it, I slammed Hugo Chávez for his utterly deplorable support for Muammar Gaddafi during, what was then, the embryonic stages of what has since become one of the most widely discussed human rights violations of this century.

Bequeathing Gaddafi the title of “Símon Bolivar of the Libyan people”, Chávez drew a parallel that even the most warped Chávista must have struggled to make sense of. As the people of Benghazi were mowed down by the hundreds, here was Hugo Chávez praising their tyrannical ruler for supposedly playing the modern-day liberator; freeing his people from the ostensible clutches of the evil “neo-liberal” empire. It sounds preposterous, quite simply because it is.

Hugo Chávez is an infamous demagogue. His 21st century socialism project relies heavily upon a specific brand of populism that has a significant portion of its own foundation laid into a bed of anti-Western rhetoric. The formula is quite simple: Chávez has created the image of an “enemy”, projected most commonly upon the United States, in order to legitimise the centralisation of power that has occurred in Venezuela over the past 12 years.  

Absurd alliances with the likes of Gaddafi are a twisted feature of this phenomenon and help to create and retain a paradigm of “us” vs. “them”. With it, he is able to masquerade as a defender of the people.  Without it, he is just another power-hungry autocrat.

And now he’s at it again. Hosting a contingent of Libyans in Venezuela earlier this week, Chávez took the time out to criticize NATO intervention, dubbing it “madness”, before accusing the United States of being in it for the dirty black stuff.  It might seem logical that if the United States really were in it for oil, she would simply continue to opt for grubby contracts with oil-endowed despots, regardless of internal human rights records, as opposed to politically and economically costly intervention.  

This, of course, is the pattern currently conformed to by the Chinese, ironically, in Venezuela amongst other places. For Chávez though, this argument doesn’t hold up; it can’t if he is to maintain the aforementioned paradigm. 

The United States must therefore remain the flag-bearer for the evil empire, concerned with fattening her own belly at the expense of millions of underprivileged worldwide. That it is she who endeavours to protect the thousands under siege from the war-machine of the Libyan state, is a postscript destined to be glazed over inChávista accounts of history.

But by today’s fast paced standards, Libya is no longer the flavour of the month. Now is Syria’s turn. And once again, this self styled man-of-the-people has come down hard on the side of his brethren; not Syria’s citizenry, but the dictator that subjugates them.

Since mid March, in excess of 400 Syrians have been killed at the hands of its barbaric security forces for the alleged crime of political protest.  Hundreds if not thousands more in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere have been left wounded. Yet, abominably, it is Assad who receives Chávez’s support while he has branded the people of Deraa as “terrorists”.

At times, Western commentary gets its kicks out of poking fun at the spectacle that is Hugo Chávez. This eccentric screwball has often become a parody of himself and the perfect candidate to cast in satirical light. But it is on occasions such as this that we must recognise that Venezuela’s authoritarian leader is so wildly out of sync with the virtues of liberal democracy that it makes even a wry smile hard to muster.  

It may be the case that we are able to detect demagoguery when we see it, but it makes Chávez’s tempestuous opposition to the West no less threatening in a climate where nascent aspirations for democracy are being cut brutally short. Preposterous he may be, but downright dangerous too.

Dane Vallejo is the Associate Editor of The Commentator. He tweets at @DaneVallejo

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