With the 11th anniversary this week of President Hugo Chávez’s ascension to power, I started reflecting on what I had learned from the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. President Chávez’s behavior and profile, internationally and nationally, provide a powerful lesson on how to challenge and defy traditional wisdom—and with it international norms and precedent.
1) Break All Diplomatic Rules and Decorum and You’ll Get a Free Pass: President Chávez has called U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” on the floor of the UN; said on his regular, one-man variety show Aló Presidente that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needed a real man and described how he would seduce her; called the Secretary General of the Organization of Americas States, José Miguel Insulza a “pendejo” (to put it nicely, a jerkwad), just to cite a few of the incidents of his intemperate name calling. And what has the international community done? Besides King Juan Carlos of Spain telling him to “shut up” at the Ibero-American Summit, nothing. This over-the-top behavior challenges the traditional civility of diplomacy. Arguably, these sorts of outbursts don’t deserve a polite response. But they have had the effect of intimidating would-be critics, cowing heads of state and multilateral organizations all the while President Chávez thumbs his nose at democratic and human rights norms. The international community has watched as standards for free and fair elections have declined; stood on the sidelines as the government systematically dismantles freedom of expression by closing down opposition media; and given a meek response when it has jailed opponents. And the recommendation by many observers? Don’t provoke Chávez, implying that even raising legitimate issues is forbidden because it may provoke a childish reaction. President Chávez’s behavior also has the benefit of reinforcing a convenient image of a buffoon (see #7 below).
2) If You Wrap Yourself in the Rhetoric of Social Justice, People Will Give You the Benefit of the Doubt (even if you are a former military officer): Whether it’s some human rights groups that don’t want to risk their lefty creds by criticizing a supposedly socially progressive government or Hollywood stars out of their artistic, intellectual depth (Sean Penn, Danny Glover), it is astonishing the degree to which people are willing to give a pass to a clearly autocratic government that claims it’s for the poor. To say that is not to deny the need or even the merits of Chavista literacy programs, health clinics or food subsidies for the poor. But if a conservative, elected president embraced Chilean General Pinochet’s legacy, claimed he was a historical descendant of Milton Friedman, spoke a folksy jargon familiar to the poor, pursued the same social programs but also closed down opposition media and jailed opponents I can guarantee that many of these human rights groups as well as Sean Penn would be in full-throated attack mode. (I have this image of former Peruvian autocrat Alberto Fujimori sitting in jail, watching this play out and thinking to himself, “If only I had worn a Ché Guevara t-shirt this never would have happened to me.”) (Note: some may say here that Friedman would never have supported handouts to the poor; Karl Marx wouldn’t have either—in fact he would have seen it for what it really is, an effort to buy off the proletariat.)
3) Capital is a Coward: Then Secretary of State Colin Powell told a group of Latin American policymakers that capital was a coward—that it would only go where it believed it would be protected and safe. It was a nice argument for rule of law. Problem is, it really doesn’t hold true. After 11 years of railing against capitalism and capitalists, promises to take Venezuela to the sea of happiness of Cuba, incremental nationalizations, and renegotiations of contracts to more favorable conditions for the Venezuelan government, many investors remain in Venezuela. Sure, not a lot are pouring in new money. But for those that are there, their strategy has long been to keep their heads low, not speak out, and even try to curry favor with the government in the hopes of being spared. It’s a losing game.
4) Label Your Enemies Early and Often: From the moment he was elected, President Chávez set out to establish the public perception of his political opponents. First he cast aspersions on the democracy that preceded him and the honesty of all those associated it. (To be sure, there was plenty to be critical of, especially regarding corruption and inclusiveness, but a dictatorship it was not.) Later—after he was briefly unseated from power in what appeared to be a popular uprising in April 2002— President Chávez conveniently labeled anyone who dared criticize him a coup plotter. And President Chávez has relied on the old standby of calling any government or individual who dares to raise concerns about conditions inside his country imperialist interveners violating Venezuela’s national sovereignty. Sadly it’s worked. Much as we’ve seen in the U.S with right wing radio–where wild rumors and charges (regardless of their veracity) if repeated enough surface in the mainstream media–much of the Chavista-led charges and lexicon has crept into how respectable media describe recent history and current events in Venezuela. It’s placed legitimate critics of the government on the defensive, needing to prove that they aren’t spoiled elite, remnants of the past or closet coup mongers who only support democracy when it’s convenient.
5) Don’t Interfere When your Enemies are Destroying Themselves: OK, this I didn’t learn from President Chávez, but you couldn’t find a better example than the last 11 years in Venezuela. Whether it was the 2002 national strike, the events around the April 11, 2002 seizure of power by opposition leader Pedro Carmona, the tortured logic of fraud in the 2004 referendum, or the refusal of the opposition to participate in the 2005 national assembly elections, the political opposition in Venezuela has shown a dramatic failure to develop a coherent, compelling long-term strategy of countering the accumulation of power by President Chávez.
6) People Get Bored Easily: It’s been 11 years of whittling away the checks and balances of power and civil liberties….a slow democratic death by a thousand cuts. And quite frankly, people outside Venezuela are losing interest. If this were a coup with tanks rolling down the streets, reporters would be on the streets and people glued to their TVs. But attention wanes quickly for today’s consumers of politics and current events. And as people look elsewhere the project continues.
7) Let People Believe You’re a Buffoon, Even if It Plays into an Ugly Stereotype: Whether it’s his cheesy weekly television show, Aló Presidente, his tendency to break into Venezuelan folk songs, the garish track suits, or the inappropriate behavior at summits, Chávez has used his cultivated image of a clown to his advantage. It’s allowed people to underestimate him, believing him just to be a folksy (perhaps even well-meaning) clown or a just a nuisance. The reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, with his bizarre hair cut and Star Trek-era jumpsuit, looks genuinely off kilter and dangerous (even in his emaciated state). But I can’t tell you how many times in talking to foreign diplomats they’ve attempted to laugh off President Chávez’s antics—as if he were Cantinflas. Those antics have served to deflect a serious discussion of the implications of his policies and his statements…and words do matter. And this sadly, has worked to his advantage as he takes his country (and he hopes much of the region) to twenty-first century socialism.
*Christopher Sabatini is the Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.