Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, died yesterday from complications related to an extended bout with cancer. I have no idea how Chavez’s death will be remembered in Venezuela: as far as I can tell, he’s still very popular there, although for many of the wrong reasons. Chavez preached populism until he was blue in the face, while consolidating power into his own hands–doing significant harm to Venezuela’s democratic institutions in the process. (Yes, Chavez was democratically elected, although by now he has so warped the constitution that whether it will be a democracy going forward is somewhat in question.) Chavez professed a deep desire to help the poorest Venezuelans, and took some steps towards that end–but he also largely squandered the economic boom that came from Venezuela’s massive oil reserves.
But what I find most fascinating with Chavez is his perverse, abusive, codependent relationship with the United States, especially American politicians.
To many American politicians–conservatives in particular–Chavez was the next great anti-American tyrant. After all, Chavez rewrote the Venezuelan constitution to give himself more power; he courted a close relationship with Cuba; he paid visit and homage to anti-American dictators in Libya, Iran, and Syria; he led a movement in Latin America to break away from economic and foreign policy dependency on the United States; and he spouted all sorts of ad hominem attacks against the United States in general, and President George W. Bush in particular.
Chavez would get listed along with the dictators of Syria, Libya, Iran, and North Korea as modern examples of anti-American dictators. None of the rest of those dictators were democratically elected (Chavez was), all of them have direct ties to terrorist organizations that have attacked Americans or American allies (Venezuela does not), and all of those countries have either directly attacked an American ally or attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon under their most recent dictator (whereas Venezuela has done neither of those things). But the contempt for Chavez was so deep rooted among many that when President Obama during this last election brushed aside concerned that Venezuela was a serious threat to American interests–because, you know, Venezuela has never demonstrated itself to be a serious threat to American interests–Romney expressed that he was “shocked” and “stunned” by the statement.
Oh, but this little tale of paranoia is only just beginning. Because no one was more paranoid that Hugo Chavez himself. Chavez seemed to have thoroughly convinced himself, and many of his citizens, that the United States was out to destroy the Chavez regime by any means–and I mean any means–necessary. I remember seeing a 60 Minutes report from Caracas in which they interviewed numerous people who were stockpiling weapons, food, and other basic necessities, preparing to resist the American occupation of Venezuela that was surely coming. When the 60 Minutes reporter told the people that the American government had expressed no plans to attack Venezuela, he was met by disbelief. Chavez has claimed to be the target of numerous CIA assassination attempts, and if he can be believed is always one step ahead of the American-backed coup that is trying to destroy the work that he’s doing on behalf of the good people of Venezuela… or something like that. The Chavez regime has even attempted to blame the cancer that took his life on the Americans.
The beauty of this relationship, of course, was that it was win-win. For the American politicians, they got a Latin American punching bag–someone newer, fresher, and more charismatic than the ailing Castro, closer to home than the Middle East dictators, and less enigmatic than the North Korean. And for Chavez, each attack on him by an American politician was only further proof that the Americans were, in fact, out to get him, and would prompt another anti-American diatribe.
It was political theater at it’s most macabre–yet their was no actual body count, just rhetoric, which meant that it was political theater that it was okay to laugh at, to appreciate for all it’s absurd glory. And for that (and only that), Hugo Chavez, I will miss you.