Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chavez - a Response

Enrique Krauze's anti-Bolivarian diatribe against Hugo Chavez is a typical product of the right-wing Mexican intelligentsia.

Like so many of the species, Krauze establishes his credentials in the eyes of readers with 'learned' references to European currents of thought (although the learning seems to me superficial). Even on the subject of Bolivar he defers to a single European source - John Lynch (with whom I studied at London's Institute of Latin American studies). Although Krauze omits to say so, Professor Lynch's biography is clearly in sympathy with its subject and admiring of the Liberator's achievements, as are most of the other manifold biographies (the literature both by and on Bolívar is immense). Salvador de Madariaga's "Bolívar" (1949) is an exception - the embittered, rather nasty account by an unsympathetic gachupín (Spaniard). But in case there should be any doubt about Professor Lynch's position, here is how he summarizes Bolivar's contribution to the struggle for independence: Bolivar
....showed the mental determination and physical skills required by the situation. He was the intellectual leader of the Spanish American revolution, the prime source of its ideas, the theorist of liberation whose arguments clarified and legitimized independence during and after the war.

Let us take as given that Krauze has read the relevant pages of Marx, Plekhanov and Carlyle and more or less understood them. To claim, however, that these Europeans are fundamental to interpreting Bolívar and Chavez is an astonishing leap of imaginative effrontery. And it leads Krauze to conclusions about them that are widely at variance with reality. This is not surprising when one considers that another familiar characteristic of Latin American intellectuals of the Krauze variety is that their knowledge of Latin America beyond their own country is often flimsy and tends to rest, at best, on a narrow range of sources supplemented by rather too much armchair reflection. For inspiration and content, they look first to Europe and the United States, and only secondarily, if at all, to the countries whose language they share and with whose history they have so much in common. Hence why almost everything that Krauze says about Bolívar is factually incorrect (one wonders, indeed, if he actually read Lynch's biography or merely skipped through it).

On that point, at least, he resembles Marx - whose virulent attack on the Liberator was based on little more than hearsay, since the history of the Latin American wars of independence and Bolivar's role in them had yet to be written. But facts didn't detain Marx any more than Krauze. What Marx detested in Bolivar was, above all, the idea of the great man, the charismatic leader, whose existence was ideologically repugnant if not inconceivable because it ran counter to historical materialism and the "inevitable" triumph of the proletariat. I think it possible to argue that it was not so much Bolivar's person that Marx reviled, but his reputation, the legend that had grown round him.

Krauze nevertheless quotes Marx's views on Bolivar at length, allowing to go unchallenged the canard that the Liberator wrote his Bolivian Constitution with the aim of awarding himself the position of Dictator for Life. In fact, Bolivar's attempt at writing a constitution was an honourable failure and Sucre - not Bolivar - became, with the latter's endorsement, the first effective (though short-lived) president of the country.

Bolivar may well have drawn his inspiration for the idea of a life presidency from the British system which he much admired, even though he would not countenance the idea of hereditary monarchy. Hence why the position of "President for Life" outlined in his Bolivian Constitution expressly states that
The President may not deprive any Bolivian citizen of his Liberty nor impose any sentence....he cannot prevent elections nor any other institution decreed by law...
An elected vice-president was to be the real head of government.

Throughout his political and military life, Bolivar struggled (unlike Marx) with the practical as well as the theoretical complexities of establishing a viable political system in the vast regions whose independence he had done so much to bring about. He saw that without a strong central government, regionalism and factionalism would tear the region apart and pave the way for the military coups and caudillismo that, in effect, have characterised so much of its post-independence history.

Bolivar himself complained that his name
...is used in Colombia for good and evil and many people quote it in support of their stupidity.
Nevertheless, his views on government are well known and documented. And nowhere, perhaps, were they better articulated than in his famous speech to Congress at Angostura:
Repeated elections are essential...because nothing is more dangerous than allowing the same citizen to remain in power over a long period. The people become accustomed to obedience, and he becomes accustomed to command. A republican government, that is what Venezuela ... should have. Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery, and the abolition of monarchy and privileges. We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions, and public custom.

Despite these views, and his frequent attempts to turn them into policy, be began to despair of achieving them in the short term. Throughout his life as a public figure, he struggled with the issue of implementation in a region where most of the population was uneducated, while few among the tiny, ambitious elite were interested in anything other than a continuation of their privileged status. How far, Bolivar wondered, should democracy go without defeating itself? It is a question central to any effort to find a balance between liberty and equality, and one that continues to perplex philosophers and historians of ideas, and to exercise social scientists. To characterise Bolivar's struggle to shape and democratize the region as the blind ambition of a self-centred dictator is both ludicrous and disingenuous. Bolivar is not a South-American hero because the people are deluded - as Krauze implies with patrician disdain - but because he symbolizes and embodies ideals of justice and equality that have eluded - and continue to elude the vast majority of Latin Americans.

Krauze's virulent assault on Chavez is similarly riddled with distortions and inaccuracies. Perhaps the most unpleasant accusation, and arguably the most serious, is that the Venezuelan leader is anti-semitic and engaged in orchestrating a campaign against the Jewish community. I have looked long and hard for evidence of this - so far without success. All I have found are expressions by Chavez of disgust and disquiet about Israel's behaviour towards the Palestinians - a view many people share - including, it seems, the United Nations. The conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is, of course, a commonplace and should not detain us in the absence of more convincing evidence. If Chavez is anti-semitic - that is unacceptable and unforgivable; but I have yet to be convinced that the accusation has any foundation, and Krauze doesn't offer any. Anyone inclined to add this accusation to the many others directed at Chavez by the western media might do well first to listen to the Venezuelan government's response to the assault on the Mariperez Synagogue.

Right-wing attacks on Chavez invariably include - indeed often begin - with attempts to smear him with the rubric of dictator. The word occurs 22 times in Krauze's article; dictatorship 10 times. In fact, Chavez is a democratically-elected head of state who has survived at least one highly undemocratic attempt to unseat him, as well as a recall referendum. He has won and retained power in elections that all international observers agree to have been free and fair. Anti-chavista claims that the government controls the media also conflict with the evidence; as do the hysterical condemnations of the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew RCTV's licence. In truth, Venezuela has vigorous, independent media and - as Krauze admits (perhaps without quite understanding the implications) - a powerful, vociferous, well-financed and extremely muscular opposition. These would appear to be characteristics of a democracy.

Among Enrique Krauze's distinctions is that he sits on the board of Televisa - Latin-America's largest purveyor of mindless trash. He is a middle class intellectual in a country with one of the poorest and most disgraceful public education systems in the middle-income developing world. He is an intellectual fellow-traveller not of Bolivar - which would do him honour - but of Santander - the Liberator's duplicitous lieutenant, of Chile's Carrera Brothers, or more accurately (since Krauze is Mexican) of Iturbide the would-be emperor, of Porfirio Diaz and - post revolution - of Aleman, Echeverria, Lopez Portillo and Salinas de Gortari, all skilled at adopting the language of revolution and social justice while embedding privilege and sanctioning corruption.

One conclusion a casual reader might be tempted to draw from Krauze's account is that the Venezuelan people vote for Chavez because they're stupid and uneducated (perhaps like those who voted for AMLO in Mexico's stolen election), something that Krauze doubtless believes he understands a fondo because Televisa helps to keep them entertained (and no one with half a mind would pay attention to the pap it produces). Here Krauze (though he does not say so) joins Bolivar in acknowledging public ignorance and low educational attainment. But while Bolivar deplored this, saw it as a fundamental weakness, and did what he could to address it (including building schools and universities at state expense and paying the salaries of teachers); Krauze, 180 years later, earns money from it while excoriating figures like Castro and Chavez who have made public education a prime motif of government policy.

If there is an outrage perpetrated on the people of Latin America it is not the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, but the centuries of impoverishment and exploitation visited on the populace by successive generations of feckless leaders and the middle class elites that have sustained them. Bolivar at the end of his life was painfully aware that he had found no solution:
They will say of me that I liberated the New World, but they will not say that I have improved the happiness or stability of one single nation in America.
The condition of the poor in Latin America has changed far too little since Bolivar wrote those valedictory words. Latin-America's middle and upper classes have had a long run and they have manifestly failed the people they were supposedly in power to represent. Castro, Chavez, and Morales are not unfortunate aberrations but a direct consequence of the refusal of elites - ever since the Conquest - to address the savage inequalities that disfigure the continent.

Let us turn now to Krauze's view (such as it is) of Venezuela's economy. No one who has given the issue more than cursory attention disputes that Chavez has targeted the poor since he came into office - not just with rhetoric but with action aimed at improving their standard of living. Since the government gained control of the national oil company in 2003, Venezuela's GDP has almost doubled and - contrary to Krauze's account - most of the growth has been in the non-oil sector of the economy and in the private sector. Over the same period, the overall poverty rate has halved and extreme poverty has fallen by over 70 per cent. Between 1998 and 2008 social spending tripled in real terms, the number of primary health care physicians grew by a factor of 12, and infant mortality fell by a third. By any standards, these are remarkable achievements. Readers interested in understanding some of the real reasons why Chavez is repeatedly successful at the polls might wish to consult the study recently published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (from which the data referred to above are sourced). To borrow the words of a famous American lawyer, Krauze's economic case against Chavez amounts to "ten pounds of hogwash in a five pound bag."

Assuming that Krauze is not merely grandstanding and that he actually believes what he writes, the only possible conclusion is that he simply hasn't bothered to ascertain the facts. This, more than anything, shows him up as an intellectual poseur, concerned not with exposing truth but disguising it with fake erudition in the service of a drearily familiar set of fatuous upper middle-class prejudices. And those who know something of Latin American history may well read the last sentence of his essay less as a prediction than as a threat. For it is couched in precisely the kind of inflammatory language that all-too-often has proved to be the prolegomenon of violent intervention.

Bibliographical note for English-language readers: An excellent brief account of Bolívar's thought can be found in J.L. Salcedo-Bastardo: Bolívar - A continent and its Destiny. The English translation (1978) is abridged - but contains most of the essentials. Of the biographies in English, the two best are those by John Lynch (2006), and Gerhard Masur (1948) - the former easily obtainable, the latter only in libraries. A fascinating contemporary narrative by Bolívar's aide-de-camp, Daniel Florence O'Leary seems to have been written in English, but it has only been published in Spanish as part of a multi-volume collection of papers that O'Leary assembled during and after the War of Independence. Bolívar's own writings were vast, but there is a good representative selection in Bushnell (ed): El Libertador: Writings of Simon Bolivar.