Venezuela needs social democracy, not a saviour

In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the transformation of Venezuela by Richard Gott (Verso, £16)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Many of us, the author of this book included, have a weakness for Venezuela and Venezuelans. Venezuelan women are indisputably much more beautiful than any others in the world, and my own experience of Venezuelan men is that they are friendly and generous. On the evening in 1962 when I first landed in the country, the drive from the airport by the Caribbean up to Caracas, a glittering city in its narrow mountain valley, reminded me thrillingly of William Blake's lines about Jerusalem.

Many of us, the author of this book included, have a weakness for Venezuela and Venezuelans. Venezuelan women are indisputably much more beautiful than any others in the world, and my own experience of Venezuelan men is that they are friendly and generous. On the evening in 1962 when I first landed in the country, the drive from the airport by the Caribbean up to Caracas, a glittering city in its narrow mountain valley, reminded me thrillingly of William Blake's lines about Jerusalem.

The coinage was solid silver in those days. The five-bolivar coin was of a weight and unalloyed seriousness not seen for decades in Britain. Politically, there was a hint of menace in the air. The civilian government had just put down a military revolt, and loyal troops were still deployed. Nowhere else could have provided a more exhilarating introduction to Latin America for a journalist.

The subsequent history of its leaders' criminal incompetence in wasting Venezuela's resources of oil, minerals and human capacity has been tragic. Yet Venezuelans have been lucky. They escaped the terror regimes of South America and the pitiless and bloody US interventions that made much of Central America an inferno in the late 20th century.

Last Thursday, on a wave of hope, they inaugurated as president the soldier whom poorer Venezuelans - in their great majority - chose to lead them out of the mess of poverty and disorganisation into which earlier leaders had plunged them. Richard Gott has produced a remarkable book, limpidly clear and fascinatingly readable, on Hugo Chavez: the humbly born colonel who in 1992 sought to create a social revolution in his country by a coup which failed. This year, he has won the highest office through fair elections, and is attempting to push forward with changes within a constitutional framework.

Gott rightly emphasises the urgency of democratising Latin America, that part of the developing world where the gap between rich and poor is widest and where the lives of millions are wasted in poverty. He is supportive of Chavez and his circle's distaste for the new economic orthodoxy peddled to Latin Americans, and shares their impatience with the sort of World Bank/International Monetary Fund balderdash which urges Latin American governments to reduce taxes and cut expenditure when their populations are illiterate, undernourished and ill.

He is also sympathetic to Chavez's feelings for the Liberator: Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century hero who helped to put an end to the colonial rule of Spain and preached Latin American unity. He cites Chavez's words on his visit to Castro last year: "In the name of Cuba and of Venezuela, I appeal for the unity of our two peoples, and of the revolutions we both lead. Bolivar and Marti [the Cuban national hero], one country united!"

So should we all be Chavezistas now? Well, perhaps not. Even those of us who support the new president's objectives, who acknowledge how effectively he has mobilised the popular vote, and who are critical of the old and corrupt parliamentary regime, can still have reservations about one more individual setting himself up as a personal saviour of his country. Surely, there have been lessons enough from the history of the last century to convince us that the development of a healthy society lies neither in the neo-liberal free market nor in the talents of one leader.

What Venezuelan society needs is a good dose of democratic socialism administered by politicians committed to a doctrine, but kept to account within a functioning parliamentary system. Sadly, Chavez does not offer that.

We do not have to agree with Gott's enthusiastic view of Chavez to admire the way he argues the new president's case. In his last major work, about Paraguay, Gott disappointed some who remembered with respect his history of the Latin American guerrilla movement. Despite the shortcomings of Chavez, this book shows its author back on top form as a supreme interpreter of Latin America.

Comments