Chavez's GulagMany in the American and European lefts fetishize Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez. Chavez is an old school left wing populist of the kind you don't really see much any more.
He regularly takes on the meddling by 'imperial America,' though it hasn't stopped him from meddling in Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian domestic politics. He revels in taunting President Bush. These are two of the major reasons why many of the left love him.
Many act like anyone who opposes American imperialism in general or Bush in particular is a guy worthy of canonization. Waving a book by Noam Chomsky only clinches it.
(Bush is allegedly reading something else)
Not being one to follow the herd, I've never subscribed to this simplistic theory. The principle that anyone who criticizes American imperialism or the Bush administration gets a free pass regardless of any other consideration. Such nonsense is nothing more than a variation of Bush's own infamous slogan "Either you're with us (his administration) or you're with the terrorists."
Granted, at least Chavez (sort of) allows opposition and democratic elections, unlike his buddy Fidel in Cuba. Though even that's only 'sort of.'
He recently shut down one of the country's oldest television stations because it wasn't sufficiently sycophantic to him. This is hardly the only assault on the media: as one former Chavez supporter explained to the independent watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, “Here we have freedom of opinion but not longer freedom of expression."
The human rights' situation faced by non-journalists isn't much better. Such as extrajudicial killings, rampant police abuse, torture and generalized impunity.
In an extremely chilling account, the liberal South African newspaper Daily Mail and Guardian described Venezuela's prison system as being 'widely considered one of the world's most brutal and corrupt.'
When a newspaper that extensively covers Zimbabwe calls a prison system 'one of the world's most brutal and corrupt,' that's quite a statement. I wonder if some of those who regularly condemn conditions at Guantanamo Bay will, even once, criticize Chavez's own Gulag. Or are only right wing government supposed to follow human rights law?
By all objective accounts, there are clearly some good things Chavez has done. He's instituted many programs to help the poor, particularly in terms of health care and education. The standard of living for millions of Venezuelans has improved and that's surely a good thing.
However, his governing style calls in to question how sustainable this improvements can be. Funding is based on revenues gained from the high price of oil, of which Venezuela is a major producer.
Additionally, Chavez and his aides have focused on consolidating power around the presidency (the cult of personality effect) rather than strengthening the country's institutions, which would perpetuate and stabilize these programs. If these admittedly positive steps are based exclusively on the personality and charisma of Chavez, what happens if the strongman dies* or otherwise leaves the scene precipitously?
(*-I find it unlikely that Chavez will ever leave power gracefully and of his own free will)
I think the fundamental problem with a 'revolution' based on the cult of personality is that it's not really a revolution. Such systems lack a mechanism for self-correction, because (and this will sound familiar) the leader and the system are one. Criticizing the system is akin to attacking the chief and vice versa. Lacking a mechanism for self-correction, such systems inevitably implode. When the system finally does implode, will poor Venezuelans acquiese into starvation like the North Koreans or angrily revolt like the Romanians?
At the end of the day, Chavez is nothing more than a populist demagogue strongman who's built a cult of personality around himself. And I've always viewed such characters with extreme skepticism. Chavez is no more a uniter than Bush himself. They're both self-styled tough guy bullies who have built their presidencies on division and demonization. Neither should be imitated.