Lingering Questions for Chomsky on Venezuela (Part 1)

This is the first post in a three-part series.

On the U.S. left, there are certain sacred cows that one should never take on directly. For years, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has been, for the most part, sacrosanct and immune from criticism. The underlying reasons for this kid-glove treatment are hardly mysterious or difficult to surmise, particularly in light of Chávez's hostility to George Bush, the great bane of progressive folk. Such sympathy would only increase over time, heading into high gear after the U.S.-supported coup of 2002, which was directed against Chávez.

When the coup rapidly unraveled and ended in fiasco, with right-wing forces crumbling in disarray, the Venezuelan leader was returned to power in triumph. Later, in 2006, Chávez was greeted warmly by the New York left after he lambasted Bush in a confrontational speech delivered on the floor of the United Nations. Speaking from the same lectern that Bush had occupied just a day before, Chávez quipped, "The devil came here yesterday, right here. It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of."

When leftists want to know what to think about foreign affairs, many of them consult the views of celebrated academic Noam Chomsky. For some time, the leftist MIT professor has provided sympathetic commentary on Venezuela, and in 2009 Chomsky even met personally with Chávez in Caracas. It came as a slight surprise, therefore, when the professor of linguistics recently criticized Chávez for the latter's handling of a case related to María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who was arrested in December 2009 by the president's secret intelligence police. The Venezuelan president had ordered Afiuni's arrest after the latter freed a businessman incarcerated on charges of circumventing the country's currency controls.

In her defense, Afiuni claimed that the businessman's pretrial detention had exceeded Venezuela's legal limits, and that she was merely following United Nations protocol on such matters. Chávez, however, was hardly convinced and proclaimed, on national TV, no less, that the judge would have been subjected to a firing squad in a previous era. Following her arrest, Afiuni was locked up in a women's prison, where she was subjected to cruel and demeaning treatment. Indeed, other inmates threatened to kill her and even sought to force her into sex. Earlier this year, Afiuni was moved to house arrest after she underwent an abdominal hysterectomy at a local cancer hospital.

With much fanfare, The New York Times reported on the falling out between Chávez and his former supporter, noting that "Mr. Chomsky's willingness to press for Judge Afiuni's release shows how the president's aggressive policies toward the judiciary have stirred unease among some who are generally sympathetic to Mr. Chávez's socialist-inspired political movement." In a telephone interview, Chomsky told the Times that he was requesting clemency for Afiuni on humanitarian grounds, and claimed that the judge had been treated very badly. Though Afiuni's living conditions had improved somewhat, Chomsky noted, the charges against the judge were thin. Therefore, Chomsky argued, the government should release Afiuni.

Chávez and Chomsky: A Warm History of Rapport

The recent spat between Chávez and Chomsky may put an end to a historically warm rapport. Indeed, The Guardian of London recently wrote that "Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise for Venezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism." In his speeches, Chávez frequently quotes Chomsky, and the MIT professor has provided the Venezuelan leader with a degree of intellectual and political legitimacy. Chávez has said that he is careful to "always" have not just one copy of Chomsky's books on hand but many.

The relationship dates back to 2006, when, during his celebrated speech at the United Nations, Chávez held up Chomsky's book "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance" and suggested that Americans read the work instead of "watching Superman and Batman" movies. Speaking to the crowd, Chávez urged the audience "very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it." Going even further, Chávez said that the MIT professor's work was an "excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century." Chávez added, "I think that the first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States, because their threat is right in their own house."

Chomsky's book immediately rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Speaking to The New York Times, a Borders bookstore manager remarked, "It doesn't normally happen that you get someone of the stature of Mr. Chávez holding up a book at a speech at the U.N." Book sales notwithstanding, Chomsky told The New York Times that he wouldn't describe himself as flattered. For good measure, the academic added that he wouldn't choose to employ Chávez's harsh U.N. rhetoric.

On the other hand, Chomsky added, Chávez's anger with Bush was understandable. "The Bush administration backed a coup to overthrow his government," the professor declared. "Suppose Venezuela supported a military coup that overthrew the government of the United States? Would we think it was a joke?" The linguist added, "I have been quite interested in his [Chávez's] policies. Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive."

The Circumspect Professor

In the meantime, the MIT professor conducted a somewhat cautious interview with pro-Chávez supporter Eva Golinger. During the discussion, which took place against the heated political backdrop of constitutional reform in Venezuela, Chomsky weighed his words diplomatically. When asked, for example, whether Chávez's reform could promote genuine popular power, Chomsky said, "Yes it 'could,' but it depends how it is implemented. In principle it seems to be a very powerful and persuasive conception, but everything always depends on implementation."

An academic who has historically espoused anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist views, Chomsky framed the debate over constitutional reform in anarchist terms. "If there is really authentic popular participation in the decision-making and the free association of communities, yeah, that could be tremendously important," Chomsky remarked. "In fact," the academic added, "that's essentially the traditional anarchist ideal. That's what was realized the only time for about a year in Spain in 1936 before it was crushed by outside forces ... [so] if it can function and survive and really disperse power down to participants and their communities, it could be extremely important." Chomsky wondered, however, whether the constitutional reform would be directed by the people or "fall into some sort of top-down directed pattern."

The Media Minefield

From there, Chomsky weighed in on the dicey subject of media in Venezuela and the case of RCTV, a station that supported the brief coup d'état against the Chávez regime in 2002. When asked what he thought about the government's decision not to renew RCTV's license, Chomsky remarked frankly that he thought "it was a tactical mistake." Moreover, the linguist added, "you need a heavy burden of proof to close down any form of media so in that sense my attitude is critical." Further pressed by Golinger on the question of corporate ownership of the media, Chomsky declared, "I think you just have to ask what's replacing it ... And the population should have a voice in this, big voice, major voice ... Are you really going to get popular media, for example?"

At this point, Chomsky sought to make a rhetorical point by comparing the Venezuelan experience with that of other countries. "If there had been anything like RCTV in the United States or England or Western Europe," Chomsky remarked, "the owners and the managers would have been brought to trial and executed -- in the United States executed, in Europe sent to prison permanently, right away, in 2002. You can't imagine The New York Times or CBS News supporting a military coup that overthrew the government even for a day. The reaction would be 'send them to a firing squad.'"

At the time, Chomsky probably would not have imagined that his ideas would later be used for political ends. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Chávez defended his democratic credentials, remarking that "no television channel has been closed despite the fact that in many cases the television channels supported a coup d'état. Noam Chomsky ... was asked in an interview what would happen if Fox News or CNN had supported a coup against a president. Chomsky replied that not only would those channels have been closed, but their owners would have been sent to the electric chair."

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of "Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left" (Palgrave). Visit his website,