During the days of the Pinochet dictatorship there was that joke about the Chilean dictator going on a state visit to Bolivia, a long-time rival of his own nation.
At a state dinner, the Bolivian President introduces his Chilean counterpart to Senor so-and-so, Secretary of the Bolivian Navy. Feeling slightly mocked by the leader of the landlocked nation, Pinochet raises his eyebrow and says "You have a Minister of the Navy?"
The Bolivian President doesn't bat an eyelash and responds, "What's the problem? After all, you have a Minister of Justice."
In that respect, if Hugo Chavez wants to call himself a socialist and pretend that the armed forces that currently hold the levers of power in his country and who swear an oath to defend the fatherland, revolution and socialism are the armed representatives of the working class, I suppose that's his right. After all, if Dick Cheney can call himself a defender of democracy, why can't Hugo claim to be a tribune of socialism?
There have been worse characters in history who have claimed the title of socialist. From Stalin to Pol Pot to the younger Mussolini.
But Chavez is hardly in their league. He's much more of a cross between Peron and Fidel with a dash of the Woody Allen character in Bananas. Make that two tablespoons.
I, on the other hand, venture to believe that Mssrs. Marx and Engels had a rather different species in mind when they were theorizing about a post-capitalist world and who might lead it.
But then again, Venezuela is hardly post-capitalist. If what Chavez has got going there has anything to do with the democratic and egalitarian notions that have inspired generations of socialists throughout history, please count me out.
No question that Chavez --utilizing all the state resources of an incumbent that controls ALL branches of the government, much of the media and manipulates the levers of oil-financed patronage-- won a clear victory Sunday in the referendum that will allow him to indefinitely run for re-election when his current term (and his FIRST 15 years in power) expires in 2013.
In broad terms, the vote can be called democratic. More or less the same as what passes for democracy in many places of the world. And Chavez was democratically re-elected president last time out. And, in case, anyone attempts to put some unsanitary words in my mouth, Chavez is the legal and constitutional ruler of Venezuela. Duly elected, lawfully elected.... and so on.
But he is the ruler. As none of the above negates or contradicts the rather obvious fact that Chavez intends to never leave office -- at least, not alive. His usurpation of any pluralism, of any semblance of debate and consensus in the most important levels of government is something that merits no celebrations and certainly bodes nothing very uplifting about the Venezuelan future.
Legal or not, democratic or not, Chavez is bent on and has effectively already achieved one-man rule. And that, brother, ain't got nothing to do with socialism.
Socialism should mean more democracy, not less. More transparency, not less. More distribution of power, not centralization in the hands of an ego-maniac who lends himself to five hour Sunday TV spectacles and who refers to any and all critics as "squalid...terrorists...and fascists."
No question that when Chavez initially came to power, his opposition was led by rather doltish and corrupt representatives of a corrupt and discredited oligarchy. What a gift to a demagogue like Chavez!
But things have changed in Venezuela in the last five years. The opposition has broadened and deepened, now extending far beyond its original right-wing and sometimes hysterical base. There are plenty of democrats, centrists, and even leftists (and socialists) in what is now a much more mature and pluralistic opposition.
And it's now their move. They have a limited historical window in which to pull it together and forge a credible, progressive, and attractive alternative to the brutish Chavez. Either that, or they should be prepared to have their grandchildren listening to Chavez rants and raves thirty years from now.
P.S. I am now going to contradict what I just wrote. I am willing to bet real cash that Chavez will not make it for another decade. He has given far too much power to the Venezuelan military and that will be his eventual downfall. The world economic recession and the plummeting price of oil, Chavez' failure to invest in a diversified economic development program, rampant corruption (and a horrific murder rate), will inevitably -- and probably sooner rather than later - lead to massive discontent. I would guess that such popular disillusionment (of the sort that usually lends itself to a yearning for an iron fist) will kick the doors wide open for a military coup by one or another general not anxious to go down with Chavez' dingy. This seems a more likely end to this story than an opposition victory anytime soon. I would not cheer nor support such a coup. It would probably produce something worse than the status quo. I just find it the most likely of outcomes.
This piece was originally published on Marc's blog.