Saturday, March 09, 2013

Hugo Chávez and Chavismo: The Venezuelan Transcendence of Neo-Liberalism

All too often the labels and categories routinely invoked for both descriptive and analytical political discourse in public fora bespeak the noxious effects of intellectual lethargy, ideological calcification, and even the crassness of black-and-white thinking. In part, this reflects the cumulative consequences of a journalistic diet of mass media junk food. This unhealthy dietary regimen has its origins in the mass media’s analogue to factory farming, the products of a “commercial media juggernaut” at once constrained and motivated by capitalist imperatives as politically sanctioned by the most powerful nation-states and enshrined in the globalization of neoliberalism.[1] Perhaps most of these labels and categories are indispensable, with a rightful place in our political language, particularly when discretely or properly applied, but on occasion they prevent or obscure our appreciation of history, of novel socio-economic and political ideas and movements, of the “messiness” or complexity of social reality, in the domestic case or, especially in this instance, in understanding events abroad. 

For a host of reasons we won’t address here, contemporary commercial mass media structurally facilitates and encourages such lethargy, calcification and simplistic thinking, meaning that this need not be the direct result of the manifest individual or collective intentions of editors, and journalists, and even its managers and publishers, but the factors and variables at play in establishing and maintaining this structure assure a comparatively weak and democratically diminished Fourth Estate. For instance, Robert McChesney has noted the corresponding “decline and marginalization of…public service values,”[2] conspicuously evidenced in the precipitous decline of investigative journalism, hence the effort to address this void by an Internet-based non-profit journalistic endeavor like ProPublica. At its website, ProPublica proclaims that

Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury. Today’s investigative reporters lack resources: Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated ‘investigative’ to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats. New models are, therefore, necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.

It is true that the number and variety of publishing platforms are exploding in the Internet age. But very few of these entities are engaged in original reporting. In short, we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem.

More than any other journalistic form, investigative journalism can require a great deal of time and labor to do well—and because the ‘prospecting’ necessary for such stories inevitably yields substantial number of ‘dry holes,’ i.e. stories that seem promising at first, but ultimately prove either less interesting or important than first thought, or even simply untrue and thus unpublishable. Given these realities, many news organizations have increasingly come to see investigative journalism as a luxury that can be put aside in tough economic times. Moreover, at many media institutions, time and budget constraints are curbing the once significant ability of journalists not specifically designated ‘investigative’ to do this kind of reporting in addition to handling their regular beats.[3]

It’s been argued that the problem is far greater than that having to do solely with “investigative journalism, ” encompassing most of what generally falls under the heading of “news gathering” and “news reporting” in this commercial media juggernaut. Media ownership concentration[4] is one source of key structural factors and variables responsible for either causing or accelerating deleterious trends in this regard, making mincemeat of our designs and hopes for a media fashioned to serve the means and purposes of a democratic polity, one designed to address, in other words, the nutritional informational and knowledge needs of a democratic civil society struggling to free itself from servile and obsequious relations to the aristocracy of Capital and the dictates of the National Security State.

All of this by way of setting the table for an attempt to make sense of the Venezuelan presidency (1999-2013) and legacy—largely but not solely as Chavismo—of Hugo Chávez (28 July 1954 – 5 March 2013).[5] Two of the articles we’ll mention could be considered exceptions to the generalizations above: perhaps the foremost being the New York Times’ decision to publish a cogent, fitting and fair memorial op-ed by Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva, the former president of Brazil (2003-2010), and a short Los Angeles Times article on why Venezuela’s poor came to discover ample reason to demonstrate their loyal support and affection for a man whom pundits, intellectuals, and politicians of the privileged caricatured and derisively dismissed with a perfervid rhetoric that reveled in ritualistic references to a “tin pot caudillo,” a “conspiracy theorist,” a “megalomaniac,” a demagogic buffoon of authoritarian manner if not dictatorial pretension. Whatever the grains of truth found in such characterizations, they serve in the end to ideologically obscure and distort attempts to accurately assess the socioeconomic and political legacy of Chávez and Chavismo in Venezuela, including its possible enduring contribution to Leftist politics and movements throughout Latin America. The reality of that legacy is rather more complex and perhaps a bit fuzzy, and it is undoubtedly far more interesting than suggested by such rhetoric.

No less than Christopher Hitchens indulged in the assumptions and premises of this discourse, thereby precluding a full appreciation of the fact that, “especially in the areas of public health, housing and education, [Chávez] succeeded in improving the standard of living of tens of millions of Venezuelans,”[6] or that his “government reduced extreme poverty by 70 percent,”[7] or that (while not entirely successful) imaginative and courageous experiments were initiated by the State in the form of Community Councils constituted “to oversee local social-welfare projects…[that] quickly turned into sites of real democratic debate, electing delegates and empowering people who previously didn’t have any say over the decisions that structured their lives.”[8] Hitchens preferred instead to draw our attention elsewhere, homing in on the Venezuelan president’s putative “politicized necrophilia” (with regard to Simón Bolívar), serving his readers the journalistic equivalent of the social class and status converse of voyeuristic and vicarious slumming, narrating the juicy details of his up-close-and-personal verification of anecdotal evidence that “[Chávez] does have an idiotic weakness for spells and incantations, as well as many of the symptoms of paranoia and megalomania.”[9] Would it have been unreasonable to expect Hitchens to engage his journalistic prowess on behalf of old-fashioned slumming so as to give voice to the Venezuelan poor, as did the writers in our LA Times piece:  

Maria Eugenia Mendoza, a 55-year-old special education teacher, held aloft a Chavez poster Wednesday afternoon and sported, like so many others, a bright red T-shirt, the sartorial symbol of Chavez’s socialist project. Before Chavez, she said, the children she works with had been marginalized. Their classroom was a run-down warehouse. Their school supplies were scant. ‘Poor, handicapped students were forgotten until he came to power. They suffered from a total lack of focus by the government,’ said Mendoza, a teacher for 25 years. ‘Under Chavez there was a complete change. We now have a new school, curriculum, diagnostic equipment, trips and even sports programs. ‘He gave us hope,’ she said. ‘That’s why I am a Chavista.’[10]

Had the good doctor Hitchens resisted the temptation to indulge in amateur diagnosis under the cover of tabloid journalism, he might have informed his readers that Chávez “filled bellies, stocked classrooms, and tended to the ill,”[11] in spite of his all-too-human shortcomings.

In The Nation, NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) executive editor Greg Grandin shares another example of recalcitrant ideological obscurantism entrenched across the prevailing political spectrum of Mirabeau’s “geography of the Assembly:”

Latin American populists, from Argentina’s Juan Perón to, most recently, Chávez, have long served as characters in a story the US tells about itself, reaffirming the maturity of its electorate and the moderation of its political culture. There are at most eleven political prisoners in Venezuela, and that’s taking the opposition’s broad definition of the term, which includes individuals who worked to overthrow the government in 2002, and yet it is not just the right in this country who regularly compared Chávez to the worst mass murderers and dictators in history. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in an essay published a few years back celebrating the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, fretted about enjoying the fruits of Venezuela’s much-lauded government-funded system of music training: ‘Stalin, too, was a great believer in music for the people.’[12]

Bhaskar Sunkara, a senior editor at In These Times and the talented and articulate founding editor of Jacobin magazine, one of the premier periodicals on the Left, wrote a piece last year, “Postmodern Perón: Hugo Chávez and the new face of Latin American populism,”[13] that properly located Chavismo within the history of the Left in Latin America and in particular within the region’s well known tradition of populism.[14] Sunkara rightly describes the electoral victory that brought Chávez’s fourth term as Venezuela’s president—a term diminished by his illness and shortened by his death—as a “victory for progressive forces in his country,” a significant cause for celebration even if the Bolivarian Revolution[15] is, at turns, erratic and contradictory, “both authoritarian and democratic, demagogic and participatory.”

With Sunkara, we can readily concede that “some of the criticism of Chávez is justified,” which should surprise no one. At the same time, it is “undeniable” yet eminently understandable “that facing hostility in the media and an entrenched elite, the president at times used executive power to circumvent political opposition.” And while Chávez was clearly a leftwing populist in the Latin American tradition, he was “one distinctly more radical—if less predictable—than those who came before him.” If, after Hitchens, we find Chávez exhibited “symptoms” of paranoia, we might forgive him, fully aware that the U.S. backed the coup d’état of April 11, 2002 which “appeared to spell the end of the Chávez moment.” In the words of Sunkara,

The hubris of the reactionaries was astounding, and mainstream Venezuelan media outlets, complicit to varying degrees, at the very least could not hide their delight. Pedro Carmona, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, was installed as interim president, and the National Assembly, Supreme Court and 1999 Constitution were dissolved to rousing applause. The United States and Spain rushed to establish relations with the new government. The event, framed in Orwellian terms by much of the Latin American Right, was a ‘triumph for democracy.’ But the opposition underestimated the support Chávez still had among the Venezuelan poor. A spontaneous mass uprising by hundreds of thousands of people outside the Miraflores Palace and the revolt of Chavista officers within turned the table on the plotters. Within 47 hours the government was restored, but extra-parliamentary resistance to the regime continued.[16]

The palpable fear and hostility one senses from the usual strata and quarters in this country and in parts of Latin America is irrational to the extent it arises from Chávez’s (late-blooming) conversion to socialism, which found him “more committed to redistributing wealth and power than just about any Latin American who came before him” (Sunkara). Chávez, as Sunkara well explains, was neither a despot nor a saint, as sober assessments by Sunkara, Lula, and Grandin, among others, attest:

‘Chavez was more than just an image to us. He was a very human figure who worked to improve our lives,’ said information technology engineer Vicente Rodriguez, 47. ‘Before, I couldn’t have cared less about politics, but he got me involved and interested in working for the common good.’ Rodriguez said he donated part of his time as an adult-education consultant. [….]

‘The poor were the forgotten ones before Chavez took office. Now we are visible, and the government has given us power we never had before,’ said Francisco Umbria, a retired municipal employee who stood in the massive crowd, waiting for the casket to roll by. ‘Only people who are forgotten die, and Chavez will never be forgotten, not for 100 years.’[17]

[1] Some of the relevant literature can be gleaned from the compilation I made here: Mass Media: Politics, Political Economy, & Law—A Select Bibliography.
[2] Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (The New Press, 2000).
[3] .
[4] There are several works one might cite here but see, for example, C. Edwin Baker’s Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
[5] A rather critical assessment: Tillman Clark, “Chavismo: The Re-Emergence of Progressive Populism in Venezuela,” (June 12, 2010) at At this site you’ll also find a wide array of articles (‘opinion & analysis’) discussing the life and legacy of Chávez. See too: Josh Watts, “The British Press on the Death of Chávez,” at the New Left Project, and from FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting): “In Death as in Life, Chávez Target of Media Scorn.”
[6] Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva, “Latin America after Chávez,” The New York Times (March 6, 2013). Available: .
[7] Bhaskar Sunkara, “Chávez: Despot or Saint?,” VICE (no date), available: .
[8] Ibid.
[9] Christopher Hitchens, “Hugo Boss,” Slate (posted March 5, 2013, originally written in 2010). Available: .
[10] “Among Venezuela’s poor, Hugo Chávez ‘will never be forgotten,’” Los Angeles Times (March 6, 2013), available: 20130307.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Greg Grandin, “On the Legacy of Hugo Chávez,” The Nation (March 5, 2013), Available: .
[13] Bhaskar Sunkara, “Postmodern Perón: Hugo Chávez and the new face of Latin American populism,” In These Times (online) (October 10, 2012), available: .
[14] As Jorge E. Castañeda noted in his classic study, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), “There is an abundance of literature on populism in Latin America.” Among the works in English listed as “most frequently quoted:” Torcuato di Tella, “Populism and Reform in Latin America,” in Claudio Veliz, ed., Obstacles to Change in Latin America (Oxford University Press, 1965), Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner, Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), and Paul W. Drake, Socialism and Populism in Chile, 1932-52 (University of Illinois Press, 1978). See too two titles edited by Michael L. Conniff: Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective (University of New Mexico Press, 1982) and Populism in Latin America (University of Alabama Press, 1999), as well as Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, eds., The Macroeconomics of Populism (University of Chicago Press, 1991). For a more recent collection of titles, see David Leaman’s review essay, “Changing Faces of Populism in Latin America: Masks, Makeovers, and Enduring Features,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 39, No. 3 (October 2004): 312-326, available: http://lasa Finally, see Anastasia Moloney’s essay, “The Challenge of South America’s Populist Left,” World Politics Review (12 January 2009): .
[15] See, for example, Iain Bruce, The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2008), Gregory Wilpert, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government (Verso, 2006), Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox, and JoJo Farell, eds., Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots (PM Press, 2010), and George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Him: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, 2013).  
[16] See supra note 13.
[17] See supra note 10.

Addenda: I just finished reading a concise, incisive, historically sensitive and politically astute account of the accomplishments and the difficulties faced by the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela with regard to its constitution, urban/rural issues, political leadership, poverty, democratic participation, cultural context, and the like, in Vijay Prashad’s indispensable volume, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso: 2012): 258-278.

See too: “50 Truths about Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution.” Indisputably remarkable.


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