Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Don’t Cry for Me Venezuela

On Palm Sunday we re-watched Alan Parker’s 1996 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. It got me to wondering whether some creative team might someday make a similar musical biopic about Hugo Chávez.

After all, the public manifestations of grief in the streets of Venezuela after the president’s death were not unlike those that followed the demise of Eva Perón, as depicted in Parker’s movie.

I am by no means the first to suggest that Chávez’s policies and political style amounted to a Venezuelan flavor of Peronism. Like the Peróns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Chávez was personally very popular. And like them, he pursued policies that were essentially fascist but justified them with socialist rhetoric. A further parallel: his cult of adoration is likely to live on because of his untimely death, at 58. Eva Perón, who succumbed to cancer at 33, is still evoked by many in Argentina as some sort of combination of saint and champion of the people.

In the days after Chávez’s death, the UK’s Financial Times provided a very helpful overview of the state of the left in Latin America. Its author, John Paul Rathbone, pointed out that there are two strains of leftism in the region—a division that was highlighted by an event that was overshadowed by Chávez’s prolonged demise. After five years of waiting for permission to leave Cuba, writer and pro-democracy blogger Yoani Sánchez went on a tour, beginning in Brazil, to promote her cause.

Wrote Rathbone, “At a São Paulo bookshop, about 200 young socialist activists burst into the room proclaiming her a CIA spy. One protester chanted: ‘Mercenary.’ It was the same kind of invective that Chávez, Cuba’s closest ally, had levelled against Caracas’s middle class, which he condemned as los escuálidos or the ‘squalid ones.'” But she was also reassured by many Brazilians that those activists were not representative.

Citing the Mexican intellectual Jorge Castañeda’s 2006 Foreign Affairs article, the FT piece differentiates between the “modern, open-minded, reformist and internationalist” strand of leftism represented by Brazil, Peru and Uruguay and the “nationalistic, strident and closed-minded” strand represented by Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. (He also tentatively includes the basket case which is Argentina under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the latter category.)

To me Chávez was always a thug who, paradoxically, managed to achieve power at the ballot box after failing to achieve it through a military coup. (Usually, it’s the other way around.) While he clearly used thuggish methods to stay in power—notably by muzzling both the press and the political opposition and though some level of corruption in the electoral process—there is no denying that he had sufficient popular support to be considered his country’s legitimate leader. It just goes to show that one should never underestimate how important it is for people to have a leader who gives voice to what they are feeling and who, unlike previous presidents, looks like them.

That Chávez remained, and remains, so popular is a head scratcher for those of us who deal more in numbers than in emotions. Despite (or because of?) price controls implemented ten years ago, there are food shortages and food inflation at a whopping 1,284 percent. The murder rate last year was 73 per 100,000 people. Despite the various give-away programs that made him beloved, living standards are generally below where they were when he came to power in 1998. And this in a country that is sitting on top of incredible oil wealth. Some of that wealth has found its way into social programs, but a lot has been squandered through corruption and subsidies to other countries that subscribe to the political philosophy of Chavismo.

One report had Chávez’s personal net worth at the time of his death at $2 billion. If that’s true, it might be worth finding out who has control of all that money now and asking them if they are interested in underwriting a new Broadway musical.

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