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Nikolas Kozloff

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Lingering Questions For Chomsky On Venezuela (Part 2)

Posted: 08/17/11 12:28 PM ET

This is the second post in a three-part series. Read Part 1.

The Political Role of the Intellectual

In Latin America, there has been a long history of well-known writers developing rapport with leftist leaders. Take, for example, the case of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who established a friendship with Fidel Castro. On the occasion of Fidel's 80th birthday, Márquez wrote this rather fawning (and that is putting it mildly) piece about the Cuban leader. Then there's the case of English writer Graham Greene, who was invited to Panama by leftist dictator Omar Torrijos during the 1970s. When the Panamanian leader later died in a plane crash, Greene penned a friendly homage to his idol entitled "Getting to Know the General." "I have never lost as good a friend as Omar Torrijos," Greene later noted, referring to the man who he had unabashedly "grown to love."

The Chávez-Chomsky relationship, such as it is, doesn't go nearly as far as these earlier questionable dealings. Yet, writes an unnamed editorial board member of El Libertario, an anarchist paper based in Caracas, "it would appear that Chávez has taken advantage of Chomsky ... to gain intellectual respectability." As for Chomsky, the El Libertario member adds that the MIT professor and many leftists from the U.S. "concentrate so much on American imperialism that they wind up glossing over and even excusing other forms of oppression and injustice that can be equally terrible." (In an email the individual -- let's just call the person X -- explained candidly, "I'm not going to give my name because the aggressive and intimidating policies of the Venezuelan government toward those who express dissident opinions are well known.")

Hedging and Hawing

While it might be a stretch to say that Chomsky has ever "stepped over the line," another interview granted by the MIT professor raises eyebrows. Commenting on Chávez's enabling law and term extensions, Chomsky remarked, "Well those laws were passed by the parliament. ... I don't like those laws myself. How they turn out depends on popular pressures. They could be steps towards authoritarianism. They could be steps towards implementing constructive programs. It's not for us to say, it's for the Venezuelan people to say, and we know their opinion very well" [emphasis mine].

Here Chomsky is confoundingly frustrating. At first, the academic expresses displeasure at Chávez's measures, but then he seems to backtrack and seemingly implies that gringos don't have the right to express an opinion. While such a political tactic is somewhat common amongst the Stalinist left, it's not as frequent within anarchist circles that Chomsky claims to be a part of.

Not surprisingly, Chomsky has wrankled some anarchists in Venezuela who had hoped that the MIT professor would exhibit more of an independent streak. However, El Libertario claims that Chomsky was always "rather discreet with regards to the growing authoritarianism of the Sandinistas during their turn in power in the 80's in Nicaragua and the Castro dictatorship during several decades. And this is so in spite of the fact that among the victims of the latter are many who shared a lot with the militant pro-Cuban anti-imperialists of Latin America."

Chomsky's Trip to Caracas

Though careful to come off as somewhat circumspect when discussing the Bolivarian Revolution, Chomsky let it be known that he was interested in going to Venezuela and would be "happy to meet" with Chávez. The Venezuelan leader for his part announced on state television that "Chomsky is soon coming here. We are communicating through common friends." In the meantime, Chomsky participated in an MIT forum sponsored by the Venezuelan Consulates of Boston and New York, which focused on the need for greater grassroots democracy. Perhaps somewhat iconoclastically in light of his anarchist penchant, Chomsky stressed the need for the state to play a greater role in fostering new economic and social models. At the end of the talk, Chomsky was presented with the "Order of Popular Power" from a former Venezuelan mayor.

At long last, the meeting between Chomsky and Chávez took place in 2009 when Chomsky traveled to Caracas. During their visit, the two discussed hemispheric politics during a nationally televised forum. Hoping to flatter his guest, Chávez remarked (in a reference to Chomsky's book), "hegemony or survival, we opt for survival." Lauding the MIT professor, the Venezuelan compared Chomsky's arguments to those advanced by German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, author of "Socialism or Barbarism."

Laying it on a bit thick, Chávez heralded Chomsky as "one of the greatest defenders of peace, one of the greatest pioneers of a better world." Addressing Chomsky at the gates of the Miraflores presidential palace, Chávez continued with the love-fest and remarked that his guest was "one of the most assertive intellectuals in the struggle against the elite which governs the United States." Finally, the Venezuelan leader wished Chomsky a long life so that he might "continue to produce those marvelous ideas which nourish those who struggle against imperial hegemony and the capitalist model."

In a video posted to YouTube, Chomsky looks a little awkward and uncomfortable as he stands next to Chávez. After the Venezuelan finishes his remarks, the professor declares, "What's so exciting about coming to Venezuela is that I can see how a better word is being created and speak to the person who's inspired it." Chomsky then seems to force a smile and shakes Chávez's hand.

Looking back on the Chomsky-Chávez meeting, X of El Libertario is somewhat critical. "Chomsky's comments are so favorable to Chávez and his government that they have been widely circulated by official propaganda," X remarks. "On repeated occasions in the past, we have sought to communicate with Chomsky to inform him of our points of view, but we were met with silence."

X adds, "As far as Chomsky's trip to Venezuela ... he did not express any interest in meeting with us. We know he has gone to other places in Latin America (like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico), and that once there he has taken part in activities that were either organized by anarchists or where anarchists were present. But even in those cases, Chomsky concentrated on advancing his critique of U.S. imperialism while avoiding complicated issues like his support for Chávez."

This piece continues here.

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