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“Roll up! Roll up! Come see the Man in the Red Beret. The irrepressible! The irresponsible! The only Bolivarian Revolutionary! Hugo Chavez! The Illusionist…”
“Watch how with the sweep of his Presidential arm, the Amazing Hugo Chavez can make poverty tumble. Yes, that’s right, poverty down twenty-percent! …”
Gazing rapt, the audience follows his story of the brave “misiones,” Venezuelan volunteers backed by Cuban experts, secular heirs to the men of God that brought news of exploitation and slaving in Spanish America back to the Old World. The audience sit glued as the missionaries set up schools, staff clinics, and bring the revolution to an oppressed people. They overlook greater reductions in Brazil or Peru.
Now see how he forms an alliance against the Capitalist System and its cruel hegemony.
They see a man in the stripy jumper. This is Evo Morales, peasant union leader from the harsh Bolivian plain, a boy so poor that he would eat orange peels thrown into the dirt by visitors, now become President of Bolivia. They don’t see the Colombian FARC guerillas, whose campaign of drug-financed terror, murder and kidnapping lasted more than 30 years, but for which Chavez provided a base in the western parts of his country.
The leader of the oppressed peoples, standing up to Yankee imperialism!
He resists American attempts to isolate Cuba. He protects the Kirchners in Argentina. Brazil decides at least to smile and nod as he takes the podium every year at the UN. Why he keeps company with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, well, move along now, nothing to see here. How much oil has he denied the Yankee Imperialists? None actually, it kept flowing north.
The Eternal President, running for another term…
He may be getting older, fatter, and vanish to Cuban hospitals for weeks at a time, but he insists he’s fit to serve another term.
Chávez lived off illusions. Illusions he fostered and in which those who believed in them conspired to uphold. His formula was reliable, one that has prospered in Latin America since the era of mass communication dawned — the populist demagogue, the caudillo, for whom public enthusiasm was more important than constitutional government.
Naturally enough he intimidated his opponents, drove them into exile, and denied them jobs in the government. Elections may well have been free enough but the rest of the political realm was not.
His own illusion was that he, through the power of his personality free the Venezuelan people from poverty, corruption and the politics of the entrenched oligarchy. At home, the illusion shared by enough Venezuelans that his “21st Century Socialism” could leave them prosperous. And abroad, the illusion that because he raved against America and all its works, he could bear the standard for all “global anti-imperialism.”
These three illusions were sustained by a simple mechanism, which financed his domestic programmes, supported his image, and fuelled his diplomacy: the sale of oil, mostly to the ideological enemy headquartered in Washington, its price inflated by the capitalist boom of the early 2000s. He gave oil itself to his friends and allies: Cuba, of course, but also to Ken Livingstone’s London. All backed up by bluster and the TV phone-in during which he transacted government business on air, A Lo, Presidente.
In Venezuela the illusion had already begun to wane. There were food shortages. Oil production has begun to fall, as he neglected investment and replaced managers with political placemen. Worst of all, crime soared, making Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Over here, if the tributes from the British Left are anything to go by, it still glows. It’s as though we’ve only got through the earliest series of The Chavez Show. Latin Americans have come to understand the truth, as Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa puts it, about this man who would be a “cross between a buffoon and a superman.”
My sister has a Hugo Chávez doll, picked up a few years ago in Caracas. About 10 inches high, equipped with miniature beret, chinos and a red shirt, the figurine is battery powered. Press the right spot in his little back, and he begins to declaim “…the pride of the Venezuelan people…Bolivarian revolution…Socialism for the 21st Century…” He goes on…and on… The designers neglected to provide him with an off switch.
Eventually, the batteries run out, and he stops.