Hugo Chávez: How (I believe) an insidious myth got reinforced


Back in 2001, I read in the New Yorker a Jon Lee Anderson’s piece profiling Hugo Chávez. (You can google it.)   Knowing what I know about U.S. society, it stroke me immediately as an influential piece of (perhaps unwitting) propaganda.  Anderson, who as a journalist for the New York Times and other outlets has followed Cuba and Venezuela for a long time, offers reports that — by the dismal standards here — one may even view as “progressive.”  In any case, it always seems to me, Anderson’s pieces eloquently say much more about his own deep-seated liberal prejudices than about the concrete realities he is supposed to be depicting. As a result, I believe, his journalistic career owes much to the fact that his liberal prejudices conveniently rationalize the global imperial ambitions of the 1% that rules this land.

I single out Anderson, because — I believe — his early piece did much to establish in the American consciousness Hugo Chávez as a volatile (maniac-depressive), incompetent, second-level demagogue and micromanager, a pathetic figure caught in the midst of a social storm way high over his head.  Like little else, the article riveted among the broader American public perceptions that, for much more pragmatic reasons, were being pushed from the very centers of American wealth and power, those who do know better what’s at stake.

How mindfully I do not know, but there is no doubt in my mind that Anderson’s article exploited the racist predispositions of readers, fostering strong lizard-brain animosities against Chávez.  I do not doubt that Chávez’s looks, voice, boisterous mannerisms, the color of his shirts, etc. rubbed some people the wrong way — even people in the U.S. left, who thought that by keeping a hefty empathetic distance from Chávez they were simply guarding themselves against the “authoritarianism” of old socialism.  We all are conditioned by our social milieus.  We breath the culture around us.  The more or less idiosyncratic choice of villains by a Hollywood director may stay in the unconscious layers of our minds for much longer than we would admit.   Consciously or not, we tend to assume that our particular cultural sensibility is the human sensibility.  And this rule applies as well to educated, highly self-aware, comfortable Americans.  Thus, I argue, Anderson’s piece contributed to shape up for ill the notions of the Bolivarian revolution and of Chávez among “upper middle-class” Americans. I bet that, after reading Anderson’s piece, a fair portion of his readers thought to themselves that Chávez’s supposed irrationality, his alleged ignorance of the arcane principles of economic management, his “erratic” way of conducting politics, could only meet a tragic end.  Perhaps the U.S. government, a government of presumed grownups, competent folk, would have to intervene to clean up the mess or at least make sure that the vast reserves of oil, bauxite, iron ore, gold, etc. that God placed under Venezuelan soil for the convenience of Americans remained under safe custody.

Knowing how lazy journalists across the narrow ideological spectrum of the mainstream tend to be with regards to other societies, I am sure that Anderson’s portrayal was taken at face value and got amplified mightily through the echo chambers of the U.S. media machine.  It even rippled back — I believe — to the upper crust of Latin American societies, people who tend to import their ideas wholesale from the Miami Herald and CNN en Español and need tiny little to confirm their dislike of “populism.”

What about the charge of “authoritarianism,” repeated ad nauseum by rightists and leftists?  On that, I recently wrote this comment on the wall of a Facebook friend:

The authoritarian meme is so tired. How do you uproot “authoritarianism” (the new word for what we used to call the “hierarchical division of labor”) overnight? Do you just wish it away? Do you believe that the strategy to dismantle “authoritarianism” in the left and, more importantly, in social life is self evident, so you don’t even need to sketch it? Isn’t the redistribution of oil rents in favor of the poor, effectively, the most anti-authoritarian measure that any ruler in Latin America (not about to fold or give up) may conceivably take? Where is the evidence that Chávez moved to concentrate power personally at the exclusion of the people (as opposed to at the exclusion of the bourgeoisie and the “Empire”)? Another big charge you level against Chávez is “demagoguery.” Really? Because he painted a vision of a better society and, thus, promised people that, if they organized, etc., they could turn around their living conditions, and people take a long time to organize and change their living conditions? I guess that is such a deadly blow (no pun intended) to his character that it allows you to avoid taking sides. Finally, the association with fascism is truly lazy. My only explanation for the insistence among Anglo-American educated people in linking fascism with the oratorical style of Latin American leftists is — I suppose –that the historical sources of our rhetorical education can be traced back to Jesuits and other Catholic priests, French, Italian, and Spanish. Yeah, he had some resemblance with Mussolini. That does it.

I wonder if Anderson looked back at what he wrote and had any second thoughts.  Aside from the information out in the public domain, I had a couple of brief opportunities to shake Chávez’s hands and observe him up and close, and he appeared to me exactly as Eva Golinger described him: as an unpretentious human being who — genuinely and concretely — cared about other human beings.  And, in my view, an incompetent manager he was not.  The key virtue of a manager is to get the priorities right.  To cite Donald Knuth, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”  Chávez had the right priorities well outlined in his mind.   To put it in jargon economists can understand, he may have been less than perfect at optimizing his objective function, but he had the right objective function — and he moved relentlessly in the direction of the gradient.

The reduction of poverty rates in Venezuela — in the midst of brutal external and domestic hostility, coups, and sabotage — is all one needs to confirm Chávez’s spectacular political, macroeconomic, or you name it success.  As Robert Dreyfuss put it: Chávez was “a man who did a lot of good for a lot of people.”  To me, that is the point of any sensible economy.  With the resources at his disposal, which — if you understand the concrete nature of political power — were much less than people believe from a distance, he achieved wonders by focusing on what was truly strategic: the development of the concrete powers and — therefore — the concrete freedoms of concrete people. There is nothing less authoritarian and less demagogic than helping people develop themselves as makers of their own history, and — as Marta Harnecker says — that is what will prove to be the longest lasting legacy of Hugo Chávez, the man.

Update: Some Spanish readers got perhaps a vaccine against the biases of Anderson and his ilk with none other than Gabriel García Márquez’s 1999 article, which Cubadebate is now republishing:

Update 2: The CEPR has this nice graphical summary of the economic performance of Venezuela under Chávez:


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