Hugo's Bad Luck and Big Mouth
There's not a whole lot worth saying about the passing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As one journalist friend of mine put it, "he's simply a caudillo; the region has seen plenty before." I think that's about as accurate and succinct an obit as you're likely to read this week.
Others, however, have had much more to say about Mr. Chavez and his legacy, and some of it I find to be a bit strange. I don't mean Sean Penn and Oliver Stone strange, as that level of denial and naivety should go without saying. What I'm referring to is the reaction from El Comandante's more ardent detractors. Here's Jeffrey Goldberg:
Goldberg is right to point out Chavez's human rights abuses, not to mention his history of repugnant anti-Semitic comments. But what exactly makes Chavez's record different from, for example, other serial human rights abusers that enjoy strategic, even warm, relations with the United States? After all, despite Chavez's bellicosity and anti-Americanism, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship remained a rather transactional one throughout much of Chavez's time in power.
No, Chavez's real problem was that he didn't have the good fortune of rising to power in a different hemisphere -- like somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps. When Chavez rigged elections he was called a dictator; when Jordan's King Abdullah II did it, he was called an innovator. When Chavez jailed dissidents, he earned scorn from Western media and policymakers. When the Kingdom of Bahrain did that, they got a weapons contract and a photo-op with the secretary of state. Same goes for those champions of tolerance and democracy in Saudi Arabia.
Hugo Chavez also failed to make himself of strategic value to the United States, and instead made it his business to thumb his nose at an American regional strategy still very much influenced by a Cold War frame of reference. He repeatedly touched -- nay, bear-hugged -- the third rail of U.S. Latin America policy, Cuba, and built a national identity around resisting so-called American imperialism. Though his boosters would have us believe that he was punished and isolated for "speaking truth to power" -- which, by the way, he most certainly did not -- his real crime was simply speaking in the first place. Had he stayed quiet and kept the oil spigot open, his economic mismanagement and undemocratic tendencies may have been overlooked by Washington.
Would-be demagogues and authoritarians, take note.