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The Next Fidel

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez bids to revive revolutionary Marxism.

Viewed from the shanty towns that peer down on it from the surrounding hillsides, Caracas looks like a caricature Latin American capital, with too much North American influence of the wrong kind and too little of the right kind. Here, spoiling a lovely steep valley, is the usual sad, globalized panorama of ugly, uninteresting concrete towers, one of them absurdly crowned with a huge Pepsi can. You might as well decorate the skyline with a gigantic banana.

And here is the usual trite contrast, long common in the Third World and rapidly spreading to the First World—gross wealth on display next to rancid squalor. Yes, there really are hovels a few hundred feet from a freeway crammed with new SUV’s. How obvious. How stupid.

This is, at first sight, a place of clichés. Here they all are—the plethora of uniforms, the propaganda murals, the military despot, the rigged elections, the frequent, sometimes farcical putsches, the blithe, unashamed corruption and the prevalent crime, the Cuban fraternal assistance, the blatant suppression of opponents, the currency restrictions, the annoying, avoidable shortages of milk and toilet paper, the unvarying signs of a socialist hand on the economic tiller.

And like so many authoritarian states, Venezuela has little basic order or justice. There are a thousand murders a month in a country of 28 million people. The police simply pull out of the slums on weekends, unable to face the power of the gangs.

Only when you look a little more closely do you find, hidden in corners or quietly understated, evidence of a serious civil society and a genuine national independence—a glorious equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar, a ravishing old cathedral, an elegant, airy 19th-century parliament house embodying the heartbreaking over-optimism of the country’s founders, and many honest people, equipped to live in liberty and disturbed by the menace of dictatorship.

They are right to be disturbed. It is astonishing, after more than a century of similar follies all over the world, all ending in weeping or worse, how anyone can still be taken in by the flatulent promises of political messiahs or how anyone cannot be repelled by the blatant unfairness, the transparent purchasing of the votes of the poor, the sheer vanity of Hugo Chavez.

And yet here we go again. No sooner has Fidel Castro finally accepted that his long career in radical chic showbusiness is over and retired to his bed than this new Marxoid messiah, with his own interminable speeches and dubious foreign alliances, has arisen in the Caribbean, loathed to the point of rage by the White House and absurdly idolized by the fashionable Left of the whole world.

I suppose one explanation for this resurrection must be the extraordinarily rapid collapse of the brief, intense Thatcher-Reagan dream. They told us that the world would finally accept that the market was all and that the implosion of the USSR would discredit world-reforming socialism for good. No such luck. The market philosophy, lacking any real interest in the human soul, turned out not to be very persuasive even in its countries of origin and to be a gross, bloated failure when tried in the former Evil Empire itself. If it didn’t kill off idealist yearnings in Washington, London, or Brussels—let alone in Kabul and Mecca—why should it do so here, where some of the Caracas slum quarters have been suppurating on their neglected slopes for seven decades?

Then, of course, there is the Bush-Cheney effect. Nothing could have more effectively revived bad old resentful anti-Americanism—the cartoon kind that relies on images of a heedless, greedy, violent Uncle Sam—than Messrs. Bush and Cheney. They did exactly what people like Hugo Chavez always say they do. They mistook force for power.

It is also hard to dislike Comrade Chavez personally, mainly because he is funny—funny about himself, funny about others, funny at the expense of opponents, who mostly deserve to be laughed at. He calls President Bush “Mr. Danger,” which isn’t a bad name for him.

But he just will not stop talking. All too frequently Chavez commandeers the terrestrial TV channels—the poor can afford no others—and harangues his people, urging them to be ever more grateful for the undoubted benisons he has rained upon them: smart new apartment blocks and shiny new schools can be seen among the slums, and Cuban doctors provide unheard of medical care to the poor. The price is paid in a slow, systematic accretion of absolute power and in obligatory harangues.

When Spain’s King Juan Carlos recently snapped “Why don’t you shut up?” at Chavez at a Spanish-American summit, thousands of Venezuelans downloaded the royal outburst for use as a ring-tone on their cellphones. Chavez is undeterred by such mockery. He says his weekly TV show “Hallo, President!” is a religious program “because only God knows when it will end.” This is disagreeably true for the worthies who have to sit in the invited audience, shifting from buttock to buttock as the hours amble by, sustaining themselves with sandwiches and gulps from water bottles.

It is autocracy conducted as a sort of “Oprah Winfrey Show,” with jokes, reminiscence, and singing thrown in. And despite Chavez’s charm and self-mockery, it is very, very serious. Remember, this is a man who first sought supreme office in a bungled military coup in 1992. We can laugh at it now because it failed, comically, but there is something terrifying about a man who thinks so highly of himself that he tries to take state power with violence. Castro’s first putsch, the Moncada Barracks affair, was likewise a pantomime of bungles. Both failed only because their leaders hadn’t at that stage had enough practice in taking over governments.

It was then, just after his failure had become obvious, that Chavez first used the menacing phrase that is now linked with him forever. The authorities, astonishingly, allowed the unsuccessful putschist to go on national TV, supposedly to tell his troops to surrender. This he duly did, but at the end he carefully added the words “por ahora”—“for now.”

After a little while in prison, Chavez decided to take the democratic route, cleverly exploiting the uselessness and division of his opponents, and returned as promised. Since then, by what his enemies describe as rigging and corruption, he has remained in office, surviving a coup and slowly strengthening his control of the machinery of patronage and propaganda.

Now those two potent words, “por ahora,” in white letters on a red background, appear again all over Caracas on the most prominent billboards. Their new meaning, known to everyone, is full of menace to those who have dared oppose Chavez. They refer to the referendum last December, which Chavez narrowly lost. Had he won, he would have become far more powerful, far more of a threat to private property, far harder to dislodge. There would have been no limit on his tenure of office, due to end in 2013. Many believe he wanted to ignore the result—he is widely accused of constant, highly scientific ballot-rigging of the kind that is very hard to prove—and was only dissuaded from doing so by a phone call from his friend Fidel Castro.

Whatever the reason, Chavez conceded defeat with a rather touching grace, then told his supporters to go home and let the opposition celebrate. But only for now. He can afford to be restrained. Time and the ever rising price of oil allow him to wait till later to try again. In the meantime, he continues to hustle his country down the familiar Stalinist staircase that leads to one-party rule, censorship, indoctrination, and prison camps, but this time so slowly that it will never again be alarming enough, at any particular moment, to frighten his opponents into effective action.

If there were any justice, Chavez would long ago have been forced from office by bankruptcy. His economic management is wasteful and sloppy and involves a great deal of expensive largesse to the poor in return for their votes, as well as disastrous controls that create shortages. The national oil company—which Chavez treats as his private bank—badly needs costly investment to secure future supplies. But because the Chinese and Indian booms and the Iraq War have taken the demand for oil to unseen heights, he need not worry about this. The money still comes in as fast as he can spend it. Meanwhile, much of the middle classes can be bought off with gasoline so cheap that you can fill a tank for $1.50.

Chavez lost the vote largely because of two very different opponents—one a general, the other a collection of politically untried students.

Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel had been a comrade of Chavez’s from their early days in the army. Rather than support Chavez’s autocratic constitutional reforms, he resigned as defense minister. This was accepted with a smile. But within a few weeks, General Baduel found himself being denounced by government hacks as a traitor—any former sympathizer who dares criticize gets this treatment—and having his bodyguards withdrawn.

Baduel, a religious man whose desk is covered with symbols of several faiths, also experienced a side of Chavez that his radical supporters in America and Europe find hard to explain or defend—a faint but unmistakable whiff of Judeophobia. He was accused of being “too close” to Venezuela’s small Jewish community.

His defection was an especially hard blow because he had helped save Chavez from an attempted coup by conservative opponents in 2002. Last December, only five years later, he charged his old friend with plotting what was in effect a coup against the constitution. He says that on both occasions he was acting according to the same principle:

In 2002, as a soldier, I defended the laws and constitution against an attempted coup. Last December, as a citizen and a civilian I felt I also had to defend the laws and the constitution. Friendship does not mean you have to mortgage your principles. Loyalty is not complicity. I was taught as a child that friendship is a fundamental value —but when you place friendship and principle in the balance, principle weighs more heavily.

Such opposition, if only it were linked to a serious political party, would be dangerous to Chavez. As yet, there are few signs that Baduel has any wider political skills. He was able to slow down his old comrade’s progress. But to remove and replace him with a real political party, able to appeal to the poor and offer reform and preserve liberty, is far more difficult.

The students, whom Chavez tried to dismiss as the spoiled children of the rich, are potentially a greater threat to him. They had no idea how much power they possessed when they began demonstrating against Chavez’s vindictive closure of the country’s oldest TV station, RCTV. This was pure, crude spite, vengeance for that station daring to criticize him. Unlike the traditional conservative political parties, discredited by years of corruption, neglect, and incompetence, the students could not be dismissed as self-serving or as enemies of the Venezuelan poor.

One of their leaders was Geraldine Alvarez, just 22. She and her friends, alarmed for freedom of speech when Chavez announced his plan to close RCTV, organized a genuinely independent protest. They were amazed when they suddenly found themselves both popular and under attack from the Chavez state. The official TV censored an interview with them. The police, not bothering to pretend to be impartial, made violent attacks on their peaceful marches. They were slandered and smeared by the president’s many mouthpieces. Geraldine recalls:

When we went to the National Assembly and asked for the right of reply, they said we were terrorists and trained by the CIA. They smeared us personally. They said on state TV that I was mentally ill and on medication—my parents had to watch that.

But most people did not buy these lies. Poor people in this country view students with sympathy. They could see that the placards we carried on our marches were homemade, not mass-produced like those of the government.

Nor did they believe it when Chavez said that the students were “spoiled rich brats,” since most of them came from modest middle-class or working-class homes. So when ordinary censorship and routine smears failed, the regime resorted to the methods used by Stalin’s agents in the nations of Eastern Europe 60 years ago.

Mysterious counter-demonstrators materialized on the streets, pelting the students with bottles and stones from behind police lines. Chavez enthusiasts were unleashed on the campus of the capital’s main private university firing handguns. They arrived on motorbikes and in buses with official license plates. The state did not try very hard to hide its complicity. Interior Minister Pedro Carreno went on TV dressed in a revolutionary red T-shirt to blame the university and the students for being attacked.

But the students, innocent as they may have been of traditional political ambition, were wise as serpents. They resisted the strong temptation to attack the president personally. They ignored attempts by the official opposition leaders to co-opt them. They remained, to the end, untainted by conventional politics, which until recently was a dreary system in which two more-or-less identical parties alternated in office while corruption flourished. Because they stayed clean, their battle gave confidence to those who had given up hope of halting Chavez and undoubtedly helped the campaign for a “no” vote a few months later. But their purity also limited their ability to do more than oppose. Like General Baduel, they could apply the brakes, but they had no power to offer a program of their own.

Revenge is already being prepared. Chavez is now demanding that the universities drop their entrance examinations so that he can pack them with young half-educated supporters who can elbow aside Geraldine and her liberty-loving friends. He is already funding other universities, well equipped with fleets of buses to ferry their students to “spontaneous rallies” so that what happened last autumn can never be repeated.

Venezuela ought to be an advanced and free country under the rule of law. It has plenty of educated, articulate people. It has wealth. It has most of the constituents of a serious civil society, including strong public opinion. It was born out of a revolt against autocracy.

It is a measure of the failure of free countries to encourage others to adopt their best characteristics that such a place should be faced with a choice between neglect, plutocracy, and corruption on the one hand and crude revolutionary Marxism on the other. Much the same could be said of many of the new “democracies” that sprang up in the territories once ruled by Communists.

The real essence of civilization, freedom under the law, seems much harder to export than the cheaper, flashier commodity we like to call “democracy.”