Democracy Corpse

by The Editors | September 25, 2010

Many South American politicians have laid claim to the spirit of Simón Bolívar, but very few have actually communed with it. At meetings, Hugo Chávez is said to leave an empty chair for the continent’s nineteenth-century liberator. When Chávez ordered the exhumation of Bolívar’s corpse from its grave in the National Pantheon last month, he took to Twitter and exclaimed, “Rise up, Simón, as it’s not time to die.”

This latest escapade returns us to the eternal question: Is Hugo Chávez just a buffoon or something more dangerous? Certainly, the evidence for his buffoonery is strong. Like the time he said he claimed to smell sulfur from the devil himself on the dais of the United Nations because of George W. Bush’s presence. Or the ample moments of comic monomania in his caffeine-fueled monologues on his weekly TV chat show, “Aló Presidente,” where he fills airtime by reading poetry, phoning Fidel Castro, and describing plots to assassinate him. Of course, nothing screams crank more than his removal of Bolívar’s skeleton—in the name of an eccentric theory (based on a letter deciphered with Masonic code) that the great general was actually murdered, perhaps by a conspiracy that included President Andrew Jackson and the king of Spain. (The implication: They will come for the latter-day Bolívar next.)

Many South American politicians have laid claim to the spirit of Simón Bolívar, but very few have actually communed with it. At meetings, Hugo Chávez is said to leave an empty chair for the continent’s nineteenth-century liberator. When Chávez ordered the exhumation of Bolívar’s corpse from its grave in the National Pantheon last month, he took to Twitter and exclaimed, “Rise up, Simón, as it’s not time to die.”

This latest escapade returns us to the eternal question: Is Hugo Chávez just a buffoon or something more dangerous? Certainly, the evidence for his buffoonery is strong. Like the time he said he claimed to smell sulfur from the devil himself on the dais of the United Nations because of George W. Bush’s presence. Or the ample moments of comic monomania in his caffeine-fueled monologues on his weekly TV chat show, “Aló Presidente,” where he fills airtime by reading poetry, phoning Fidel Castro, and describing plots to assassinate him. Of course, nothing screams crank more than his removal of Bolívar’s skeleton—in the name of an eccentric theory (based on a letter deciphered with Masonic code) that the great general was actually murdered, perhaps by a conspiracy that included President Andrew Jackson and the king of Spain. (The implication: They will come for the latter-day Bolívar next.)

It would all be good kitschy fun if it weren’t for the toll Chávez has exacted on his country. His dismantling of Venezuelan democracy has been painstaking and thorough. During the past few months, without much protest from the outside world, he has neutered the last remaining checks on his power.

Not so long ago, Venezuela had a raucous media culture. No longer. In June, Chávez created the Centro de Estudio Situacional de la Nación—we would translate, but it’s Orwellian gobbledygook in any language. The center is, in the words of Human Rights Watch, a “censorship office” with broad powers to suppress information. Chávez hardly needed to escalate his war against the press. Earlier this summer, the government issued an arrest warrant for Guillermo Zuloaga, the principal owner of Globovisión, the country’s last remaining major TV station with sympathy for the opposition. As Francisco Toro has written at tnr Online, Chávez has created an atmosphere of self-censorship. In the wake of the government’s shuttering of 32 opposition-minded radio stations and two local TV stations last August, every remaining network fears having the plug pulled. As a result, broadcast media don’t cover stories that might reflect badly on the regime—like the 75,000 tons of food that a state-owned conglomerate allegedly now has rotting in storage.

There are several opposition politicians who are also rotting in state facilities. Chávez recently arrested a former governor named Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, who had the temerity to discuss Venezuelan military ties with the farc, the narco-guerrillas that torment Colombia. (Actually, he was just echoing the findings of a Spanish judge who had investigated the matter.) In April, Chávez also arrested his former defense minister, Raúl Isaías Baduel, who had campaigned against a constitutional referendum that proposed removing presidential term limits. Since many opposition leaders come from the ranks of state and local government, Chávez is working to gut those institutions. He plans on subsuming them with a system of “communes.”

Over the past decade, U.S. policy has been to ignore Chávez. The theory holds that he can only thrive if we willingly play the role of his foil. Our prime worry was that he might succeed in exporting his revolution to the rest of the continent. But Chávez’s regional power is declining. Falling energy prices—and 31 percent inflation at home—have starved him of the funds that he once used to buy support abroad. Furthermore, the political mood on the continent has swung away from the Chavistas. Right-wing parties have won the last two big elections in the neighborhood, in Chile and Colombia. There’s little risk, therefore, in taking a harder line against the dictator.

The Obama administration’s criticisms of Chávez’s final descent into authoritarianism have, for the most part, been perfunctory and not terribly loud. This is a shame. Chávez had initially lavished praise on Obama, which would have made the U.S. president’s criticisms doubly damning. Fortunately, there’s one small sign that the administration is willing to engage in rougher tactics. Obama’s new choice for ambassador to Venezuela, a Foreign Service officer named Larry Palmer, has begun playing sly rhetorical games. He has described morale in the Venezuelan army as low and been blunt about its ties to the farc. These remarks have enraged Chávez, who says he will refuse to accept Palmer’s diplomatic credentials. This is exactly what we should be doing more of. Venezuela’s media have been silenced; its opposition is cowed and broken. By shining a light on Chávez’s authoritarianism, by forcing him into a defensive crouch, we can help preserve a sliver of hope for Venezuelan democracy.

This article originally ran in the September 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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