Hugo Chavez: Neither a Boogeyman Nor A Leftist Saint

Oliver Stone was never my bottle of beer. As much as some on the left attempted to prop him up as some type of progressive icon, he always appeared to me an ill-informed, conspiracy-crazed simpleton. Yet I still give his material a chance—always, so far, resulting in my frustration.

This photograph was produced by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency.

The left should not idealize Hugo Chavez (above) nor should the right unfairly demonize him. (This photograph was produced by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency.)

South of the Border, a “documentary” (more like propaganda piece) on Hugo Chavez and other South American leaders, was one such film that made clear Stone’s regard for accuracy was close to nonexistent.

And with the death of longstanding Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this week, I was reminded of not only those on the left, like Stone, who idealized Chavez as some sort of leftist saint but also of those on the right who make the mistake of caricaturing him as a tyrannical dictator akin to Stalin or Mao. Neither of these viewpoints is accurate, of course. Like all individuals, Chavez was more complex than idolization or caricature.

Conservative pundits often painted Chavez as no different from the worst of the worst among anti-democratic, illiberal leaders. But in comparison to some of America’s allies—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel, Turkey, Rwanda, Uganda—human rights abuses in Venezuela seem pretty tame. These pundits also like to point out how cozy Chavez became with global pariahs like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Yet for all his anti-American rhetoric and OPEC ramblings, Chavez still sold his oil to the “evil Yankees.”

Chavez also presided over an indisputable marked decrease in unemployment, infant mortality, and extreme poverty levels. In addition, oil exports drastically rose under his administration.

Attempts to paint Chavez as a tyrant also fall flat as he clearly did win free and fair elections and did retain support from large factions of the populace.

But for all of these aforementioned positives, Chavez, as Daily Beast columnist Michael Moynihan points out, “was not a dictator…but he was most assuredly not a democrat.” And it is time for his admirers on the left to stop acting as if he were one.

Chavez was not a fan of dissent. He shut down and censored media outlets that were critical of him. He compromised the independence and power of the judiciary while expanding the scope and powers of the executive branch. The legislative branch was similarly neutered. Supporters like Stone argue that all these moves were necessary to combat the greedy oligarchs who controlled these institutions and threatened Chavez’s plans to help the poor. Yet, even if this picture of the Venezuelan political scene was accurate, the answer to illiberalism and anti-democratic forces is never through becoming more illiberal and anti-democratic oneself.

For, how would American liberals responded if, during his presidency, George W. Bush shut down MSNBC, censored all media owned by the “oligarch” George Soros, rewrote the constitution to weaken the powers of the Supreme Court, and encroached on the powers of the legislative branch? Do the principles of free speech and divided government apply to all of us or is it simply that the ends justify the ideological means?

The problem with putting so much power in the hands of one person, with building your society or state around a single cult of personality is that once that individual dies chaos, confusion and infighting is sure to follow. And that is the problem that Venezuela faces now—where does it go from here? Chavez has left his beloved country with no clear pathway to a world post-his-mortal-life.

These weren’t the only faults of Chavez. Inflation skyrocketed (a trend that hurts the poor), infrastructure deteriorated, and the murder rate took off to the point where the government stopped releasing the figures.

One cannot criticize Bush for his warrantless wiretapping and contributions to the 2007 recession while ignoring these actions of Chavez. To do so would be the very definition of hypocrisy.

With regards to Chavez, we on the left should take a lesson from one of the greatest progressives to put pen to paper—George Orwell. When Orwell observed the evils and oppression of Western imperialism he did not blindly fall into the arms of Stalinism. Nor did he apologize for British colonialism after recognizing the totalitarian and illiberal nature of the Soviet Union and its allies. He realized that the quest for liberty and social equality did not involve joining teams. It’s about abiding by principle and standing by what is right in the face of whatever illiberal and/or undemocratic bully may come along.

And despite the good he accomplished, Chavez, when you look at the whole picture, was one such bully.


  1. Brilliant article, Bill. Puts it rather succinctly how we on the left really feel about Chavez. Not a great man, but not a scourge to American notions of freedom.

  2. john steppling says

    actually chavez WAS among the most democratic of leaders and venezuela a bastion of actual democracy. He did not shut down opposition media, he simply refused to renew a license for the people involved in a coup against him. This is a stunningly dishonest and factually wrong piece.

    • Brooklyn Dame says

      I’d agree that he was among the most democratic leaders. Venezuela has long been certified as having the most democratic elections and best checks and balances — something that not even the US can claim. That said, when he claimed that radio stations no longer belong to the ‘bourgeoisie’ and even his refusal to renew licenses he wasn’t exhibiting the most democratic of behaviours. Wasn’t the end result still that he shut down 34 stations, simply for opposing his views? If we could shut down FOX News for opposing the POTUS that wouldn’t make us a bastion of free speech and democracy.