Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The passing of Hugo Chávez

So Hugo Chávez is gone, despite the months of claims from the Venezuelan authorities that he was recovering. It calls to mind Spike Milligans epitaph, I told you I was ill’, except that in Chávez’s case it was the opposite: he kept arguing that he wasn’t that bad. 

Chávez: he spoke for the people
Without much of a pause to let anyone else get a word in
It’s going to be fascinating to see how he divides people in death, just as he did in life.The thing about Chávez is that he was a remarkable champion of the poor and the underdog, and more than happy to take on the power of the elites to defend the underprivileged.

On the other hand, the way he set about the task wrecked the Venezuelan economy, only kept afloat by Venezuela’s oil resources. When he came to power, oil accounted for 80% of the country’s exports; today it accounts for 96%. Such has been Chávez’s impact on the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

But there were other even less attractive aspects to his role in power. Like a great many rulers who know they speak for the people, he began to see ordinary democratic rules as nothing but an impediment to democracy: after all, if democracy is rule by the people, and he speaks for the people, then any regulation that limits his capacity to rule is by definition anti-democratic. So 
Chávez started shutting down opposition media outlets and ensuring that his was the only voice heard, especially at election time.

This is a standard behaviour of populists who seize power. Augustus overthrew the power of the vested elites of Rome that had oppressed the people; as a result a Republic was replaced by an Empire both the elite and the people lost what rights they had. The Third Estate in France rose against the monarchy in the name of the people, and rapidly fell under the spell of men who felt that rights were best protected by a police state. Lenin took the Bolsheviks to power in Russia to speak for workers and peasants and rapidly did away with any mechanism of popular representation.

One of the other characteristics of these champions of popular aspirations is that they like to make sure they stay in power once they
ve got there, and Chávez was no exception. He managed to obtain authority in a referendum, at the second time of asking, to remove term limits from the presidency so that, had he survived, he could have been re-elected as often as he wanted. That would have enabled him to go on speaking for the people for a long time to come.

By ‘speaking for the people’, by the way, I really mean ‘speaking’. He was capable of going on TV and talking for eight hours at a stretch. And I have to confess that a man who likes the sound of his voice that much, and what’s more is prepared to take over the media and amend the constitution so that he can ensure everyone else gets to hear it too, fails to win my unqualified admiration.

I don’t much like monarchy, because I’m even less attracted to the idea of people being born to high office for life than I am to people getting themselves elected to office for life. But I have to say that despite myself, I was delighted when the King of Spain rounded on Chávez at the Iberian-American summit on in 2007, and asked him ‘why don’t you just shut up?’

Well, Chávez has stopped talking now. The next big fear is whose voice will fill the vacuum when his fell silent. Because that’s the other problem with these great authoritarian champions of the people: they open the door to successors who are even worse. It didn’t take long to get from Augustus to Nero, nor to get from the French National Assembly to the reign of terror and then the military dictator Napoleon, and Lenin was immediately followed by Stalin.

Time to hope for the best for the people of Venezuela.

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