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Boliviarian or Stalinist?

datePosted on 15:54, February 17th, 2009 by Pablo

Victory in the constitutional referendum on removing term limits on Venezuelan presidents and National Assembly members has been heralded as a mandate for Hugo Chavez to continue the process of deepening his so-called “Boliviarian Revolution.”  His supporters see the open-ended election option as the best guarantee that the socialist and populist -inspired reforms implemented by Chavez during the last decade will continue for the next one. Opponents (who received 46 percent of the “No” vote to 54 percent in favour of the “Yes” vote in the referendum) believe that this event will entrench the slide towards Stalinism evident for the last few years (in which Chavez engineered constitutional reforms that allow him to stack the judiciary and parliament with his followers, and places the armed forces at the service of his “Bolivarian” ideals).  Given the heat generated on both sides, the question is whether Chavez is a a neo-Stalinist in disguise or a new form of democratic socialist responding to the exigencies of the 21st century Latin American context.

To be clear: Chavez has handily won every election he has contested, has survived a (US-backed) coup attempt and was restored by popular acclaim, has reduced poverty levels and increased literacy and health standards with massive funding  from state-controlled oil profits (and with Cuban technical assistance in the form of hundreds of doctors and teachers performing their “internationalist” missions–a Cuban version of the US Peace Corps, if you will), has provided developmental aid and low-cost petroleum to several Latin American neighbours as well as low-income communities in the US, has expanded Venezuela’s web of diplomatic and economic partners, and has served as a champion of the anti-imperialist cause in Latin American and elsewhere by pushing for more egalitarian trading blocs organised around “socialist” principles of fair exchange. He is the most popular Venezuelan leader since Simon Bolivar himself, and like Juan Peron in Argentina, Getulio Vargas in Brazil or Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico during the last century, his appeal to the working and lower classes is equalled by his hatred by the local elites and distrust by larger foreign powers.

On the other hand, Chavez has closed down opposition media and imposed a censorship regime on what his government deems to be “traitorous” commentary; he has armed citizen militias to ensure the “purity” of his “revolution” and to guard against traitors; he has replaced independent military commanders with personal cronies and embarked on a massive military spending spree in anticipation of a US attack that most security analysts believe is a figment of his imagination; he has failed to deal with the country’s escalating crime rate and deteriorating infrastructure; he has failed to invest in the oil industry to the point that production is now 25 percent below what it was ten years ago (although that was disguised by high oil prices up until this past year); he allocates public good provision based solely on partisan adherence to his Boliviarian Party, with the funding criteria being that no funding goes to agencies or individuals not affiliated with his Party. To that effect he has required state registration of all organised interests and collective actors, thereby marginalising those who refuse to register or register as independents or unaffiliated. He has embraced Iran, North Korea and Russia as diplomatic partners, and has threatened to nationalise foreign assets in Venezuela without market value compensation (or negotiation of value). He has been accused of funding and supplying weapons to guerrilla forces in Colombia and elsewhere in the region, as well as providing illegal cash payments to sympathetic politicians in other countries (the most prominent being a money-for-influence scandal involving president Kischner of Argentina). His government is accused of replacing the kleptocratic oligarchy of the Accion Democratica and COPEI governments in the past with red-clad slogan-spouting thieves in the present.

With oil prices in decline and demand slacking, lower anticipated revenues means budgetary shortfalls will hit hard this year, forcing Chavez to curtail some of his spending projects. Some argue that is why he pushed for the re-election referendum now, before the recession bottomed out, so that he could impose austerity and betray his campaign promises by force. There are signs of organised anti-semitism among Boliviarian militias and para-military squads, and there are reports that student activists as well as wealthy opposition figures have been the subject of intimidation, beatings and arbitrary arrest. Yet, the elections that Chavez wins, and the referenda that he holds, are inevitably characterised by impartial observers as fair and clean, so such acts would appear to be unecessary in any event. Since Chavez has a fair dose of political smarts, why would he authorise activities that were not needed given his popularity and ability to rule in a transparent fashion?

To be sure, being anti-imperialist does not mean that he is democratic. Engaging in popular redistribution programs does not mean he is democratic. Enjoying a large positive majority in public opinion polls does not mean that he is democratic. But what all of this does mean is that unlike the Latin American military dictators of the 1960s through the 1980s (all backed by the US), he can walk the streets of Caracas without fear of a riot–and not because his armed supporters surround him. Thus the question must be asked: even if he annoys Western powers, irritates neighbouring governments, buys favours at home and abroad and exhibits messianic and narcissistic traits that are at times both intemperate and intolerant, is it not for Venezuelans to decide what he is and  is not? Although he can continue to run for office, so long as elections remain free, fair and the standard for leadership selection, and even admitting the advantages that go to an incumbent such as he (where he can use the entire state machinery to mobilise his supporters), it is that mechanism–the institutionalised uncertainty of elections–that ultimately allows Venezuelans to decide whether Boliviarianism is a benefit or a curse. The combination of free elections, the need to address social problems in a non-partisan way, and the uncertain fortunes of a sclerotic  oil-dependent economy are the best hedge against further personalisation and authoritarian hardening of the Boliviarian dream.

26 Responses to “Boliviarian or Stalinist?”

  1. Socrates on February 17th, 2009 at 17:03

    With oil prices in decline and demand slacking, lower anticipated revenues means budgetary shortfalls will hit hard this year, forcing Chavez to curtail some of his spending projects. Some argue that is why he pushed for the re-election referendum now, before the recession bottomed out, so that he could impose austerity and betray his campaign promises by force. There are signs of organised anti-semitism among Boliviarian militias and para-military squads, and there are reports that student activists as well as wealthy opposition figures have been the subject of intimidation, beatings and arbitrary arrest. Yet, the elections that Chavez wins, and the referenda that he holds, are inevitably characterised by impartial observers as fair and clean, so such acts would appear to be unecessary in any event. Since Chavez has a fair dose of political smarts, why would he authorise activities that were not needed given his popularity and ability to rule in a transparent fashion?

    That’s like the US elections are clean right?

    It’s really hard to have free and fair elections when the oppositions advertising is banned… Also difficult when you invent another so called US backed coup you just happen to stop two days before the election… Convienantly arresting your opponants…

  2. Clint Heine on February 18th, 2009 at 06:41

    Good post but the above commenter is bang on. Chavez created a fake coup attempt only days beforehand to help his cause. Crime in Venezuela is skyrocketing as well.

    What does Chavez need 4.4billion in Russian miliary goods for? It is beginning to look like this revolution of his will turn violent and he will “restore order” by the point of a gun.

    I fear this will end in bloodshed for the country, Chavez has used the poor people for his political gain and one day they will rise up and the military will be utilised against them. All in the name of Socialism!

  3. imperial zeppelin on February 18th, 2009 at 11:12


    What are the sources for the contentious statements splattered throughout your post?

    To pick one example, your assertion that

    Chavez has closed down opposition media and imposed a censorship regime on what his government deems to be “traitorous” commentary

    , is simply recycling an untruth.

    One TV station that was an active participant in the unsuccessful coup did not have its broadcasting licence renewed. It still broadcasts on cable. Imagine if TV 3 backed a coup here in NZ. Do you think they would have been allowed to continue broadcasting until their licence came up for renewal?

    The line that Chavez has ‘handily’ won every election, suggesting some nefarious undercurrent to his re-elections is perhaps the one that best encapsulates your bias. Would you have said that HC ‘handily’ won elections? I doubt it, so why the double standard?

    Would I be so far off the mark to guess that your information/ opinion comes off the back of MSM articles and the HRW report of last year? Hardly recommended or reliable sources.

    The MSM unquestionably regurgitates a propaganda line and the HRW report has been shown to be a hatchet job.

  4. Clint Heine on February 18th, 2009 at 12:41

    Ahh, what is your point Zeppelin?

    I think Pablo has made very valid points, and it’s typical responses like yours to blame “MSM propaganda” which sounds like an excuse that Chavez himself would use.

    Whats your take on the massive arms build up and the firing of University professors who speak out against Chavez, the attacks on students critical of him and the slow shut down of all opposition media?

  5. Roger Nome on February 18th, 2009 at 14:16


    Apparently, people in Venezuela are happier than those in the US. But then you hear Clint’s brain ticking over …

    “How could that be when the US has over three times the GDP per -capita of Venezuela, a wonderful neo-liberal economy, and a huge disenfranchised underclass.”

    Yes, the cognitive dissonance going on in Clint’s head is palpable.

  6. What would Hayek say on February 18th, 2009 at 14:28

    And your point Roger about happiness is? A better measure is the number of people seeking to leave/enter a country.

    hmmm No don’t see many people attempting to flee the US and somehow the US is the most preferred destination for migrants.

    Note money isn’t the source of happiness, but a lack of it is more likely to make you unhappy.

    Pablo makes an interesting point about how well things fare from here for Venezuela with the decline in oil prices and lack of investment in infrastructure resulting in a loss off potential output. Russia is also facing the same problem and it will be interesting how this plays out.

    Soemthing to note, there is a reason why current capital flight is all in the direction of going into the US rather than out. I suspect the US will be a stronger economy and world player post the recession. Relative to other countries it is in a better position regardless of the current recession.

  7. Lew on February 18th, 2009 at 15:20


    It seems you’re arguing that Venezuela is tending toward Stalinism in theory, but tending toward democracy in practice; that is, any of Chavez’ actions resemble actions taken by Stalin (closing media, meddling in universities, nationalising and centralising, etc), but that in spite of this his country is freer, more prosperous and with greater opportunity than it was previously.

    The key thing for me is the fact that he was actually democratically elected in (as you say) reasonably open and fair elections. Yes; there were irregularities, but these pale into significance compared with the irregularities observed elsewhere – and ultimately, isn’t some democracy better than none?

    The matters of concern for me are two, and they’re linked. First, I’m concerned about the programme of nationalisation and centralisation, because it engenders a shocking lack of diversity, and overreliance on a commodity of which the value is complex to say the least. However this is the lesser of the two, because it seems reasonably certain that oil will go on being valuable for long enough for the economy to diversify. The second, and more serious, is the tendency toward revolutionary authoritarianism exhibited by Chavez. I think that while the current state of affairs in Venezuela might well be better than previous times (and people might well be happier), I fear that this will be a passing phenomenon, because if Chavez manages to insulate himself from the rigours of democracy and therefore the consequences of his decisions, things will go downhill, and fast.


  8. imperial zeppelin on February 18th, 2009 at 17:55

    do you have a source for the claim that University Profs are getting fired or the attacks on students or the shutting down of opposition media?

    As for buying arms, Columbia is right next door, armed by the US and not exactly sympathetic to Venezuela or the Bolivarian Revolution.

    As for MSM prop. Go read something like the UK Independent. Not a bad source for news until you read the tripe they keep trotting out about Venezuela. And where are they getting their info from? From the media in Venezuela. Corporate media that is overwhelmingly antagonistic to the efforts to build 21st C Socialism.

    Which cycles quite nicely back to your claim that opposition media is being shut down. It’s just not true.


    If nationalisation was by design accompanied by centralisation, I’d share deep concerns. However, the intent is to hand control of nationalised industry to workers. That it has not always happened is due more to workers lacking the tradition of self control than any obstacles placed in their way by the state.

    Also. When and how has/is Chavez insulating himself from the rigours of democracy?

  9. Pablo on February 18th, 2009 at 18:10

    I phrased the post as an interrogatory so that readers could ponder the pros and cons of the Chavez experiment without ideological blinders, or at least when doing so having to confront their own biases. Both Socrates and IZ appear to have not bothered to do so, and Nome appears to continue an outside argument with Clint (whose comments I do not find unreasonable). So here is the deal, since Lew’s last comment is more on target of the thrust of the post.

    As some of you may know, I was raised in Latin America, focused the bulk of my academic career on the region (which means reading, teaching and writing about it), spent time at both the US State and Defense departments working on Latin American issues, and have been involved with NGOs as well as government agencies as a consultant on matters of regional import. I say this because I have been watching Hugo Chavez since his two aborted coup attempts in the early 1990s, and while not considering myself a Venezuelan expert, I have more than a passing familiarity with his style of rule as well as the larger Venezuelan socio-economic, cultural and political context and have continued to study its unique development with interest.

    Given that background, this is my assessment: Chavez is a populist authoritarian. He is popular and wins elections without having to resort to vote fraud or systematic intimidation (although his followers are less circumspect). His rise was abetted by the ruinous rule of the oligarchical democracy that preceded it (born of the Pacto de Punto Fijo in 1959, which ended years of internecine violence between contending political factions representing different segments of the economic elite). His coups against that oligarchical democracy aka keptocracy were widely popular and were his springboard to power. By the time he was voted into office in 1998 the vast majority of Venezuelans were sick of “democracy” as manifest in Venezuela. They wanted something else and did not necessarily care if it was authoritarian so long as it was massed-based and resditributive. That it is.

    Chavez uses oil revenues to fund his redistributive programs, with funding awarded based on political loyalty to the Boliviarian project rather than need. He is not a real socialist, and his only real difference with the old fashioned populists like Peron and Vargas is that he has internationalist pretensions unlike his predecessors.

    He uses state corporatist mechanisms of interest administration as the main form of political control, with all interest groups requiring to be recognized by the state in order to legally operate. Those that are affiliated with Chavez’s political party are registered; those that are not affiliated are not registered. The traditional sources of opposition to him–the oligarchy who staged the coup against him in 2002–are disorganised, venal and corrupt, so they are not a credible counter to the Boliviarian project. The most credible opposition comes from within Universities and the military itself, for which they are the targets of purges and intimidation as “counter-revolutionaries.”

    Yet, the Boliviarian “revolution” has, as I said before, reduced poverty and lifted health and literacy standards.The crunch will come with the drop in oil revenues. The 2009 budget forecast was premised on the price of Venezuelan crude averaging US$60/barrel. With the price almost half that, something will have to give in terms of state spending. The question is how to sell austerity given Boliviarian promises? For Chavez, as for the old populists, the response is to centralise fiscal, military and political control in the hands of a selected group of cronies and to print more money. That is not a long-term solution. If he cancels much of his foreign aid, he will have some cushion for his domestic projects, but even that will not cover the full costs of the projects he has underway. That spells trouble because there are still significant parts of the working class, peasantry and lumpenproletariat who have yet to receive the benefits of his social programs in the measure that they expected given his rhetoric. Thus, he will have to either turn on them or turn on the remnants of the upper classes (a significant number of whom have fled to the Miami area to the point that a suburb called Weston is now nicknamed “Little Venezuela”). Either way, that could precipitate a class or civil war.

    It is unwise to overlook the resilience of the Venezuelans and the divided loyalties of the Venezuelan military. The arming of civilian militias and weapons purchases indicate that Chavez is aware of the potential for internal violence and has moved to pre-emptively counter any armed resistance from within or without the armed forces. But that may not be enough if oil revenues continue to slump as a result of lower foreign demand and strengthening of repressive control is increasingly justified in “us or them terms.” To be sure, the traditional opposition is disloyal and not to be trusted to adhere to democratic procedures, but then again, neither is Chavez given his record.

    I therefore return to my original question, which is where does his regime propose to head given the current and near-term context? It is not a given that he is going to go hard Stalinist because he is astute enough to know that would alienate him from the Latin American social-democratic Left (like Lula in Brazil) as well as many of his original supporters in the middle class and lower bourgeousie. But with a disloyal opposition plotting and scheming, he may not be in the mood for open competition either. So far he appears to have moved towards a “harder” stance rather than a conciliatory one, but his victory speech after this last referendum was unusually gracious towards the opposition. Perhaps he understands that with the margin of his victories getting smaller with each iteration (and one defeat in a referendum already), and with a number of cities in opposition hands that are unconnected to the oligarchs, he needs to add olive branches into the mix. Then again, he may just be talking nice while planning otherwise. Whatever the case, I think that we shall seem him reign in his ambitions on the international stage in order to focus on governance at home because the outcome of his project has yet to be written.

  10. Neil on February 18th, 2009 at 18:43

    However, the intent is to hand control of nationalised industry to workers. That it has not always happened is due more to workers lacking the tradition of self control than any obstacles placed in their way by the state.

    great minds think alike –

    If Socialism can only be realized when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least five hundred years.


    Another factor Pablo is Chavez, like Armadinajad, can no longer simple rely on a relatively favourable comparison with the US president. With Obama they will both look like the tinpot authoritarians thet always have been to a far larger proportion of the world.

  11. imperial zeppelin on February 18th, 2009 at 18:50

    my comments are extrapolated from arguably reliable and authoritative sources which I’ll happily list, not a projection of ideology onto an unfolding reality.

    And this isn’t a dig. But does it never occur to you that what you posit as your credentials carry in and of themselves an implicit bias? You don’t work at the State or Defence Department or get work as a consultant unless you adopt or develop ‘acceptable’ world views.

    All I’ve asked for is sources or examples to some of the claims made. My bad?

  12. imperial zeppelin on February 18th, 2009 at 19:07


    Methinks Comrade Vladimir had ,given his record, damned good reason to peddle the improbability of some type of ‘spontaneous enlightenment’ while ignoring the possibility and practicality of incremental learning and accruing experience.

  13. Neil on February 18th, 2009 at 21:07

    That wasn’t quite what Lenin was arguing for though Zep. he was arguing for the Party as Vanguard.

    i’m a big fan of worker co-opertatives such as those at Mondragón but the more common painful and expensive, in terms of human lives, process of implementing Socialism – that’s the reality – is part of Socialism.

    How you get to communism, Socialism being just one stage, was never of any concern for Lenin and Stalin, not they ever really cared for more than their own egos. And they killed millions of people.

    Chavez is just the same.

  14. Lew on February 18th, 2009 at 21:08


    However, the intent is to hand control of nationalised industry to workers.

    An important word is missing here: stated. I don’t buy it for a moment.

    That it has not always happened is due more to workers lacking the tradition of self control than any obstacles placed in their way by the state.

    This is an odd mix of bourgeois paternalism toward the proletariat and proletarian self-deprecation.

    Also. When and how has/is Chavez insulating himself from the rigours of democracy?

    By weakening and suppressing the civil structures which make democracy strong (the media, universities, opposition parties, certain lobby groups, demonstrators, etc), and by calling for extended mandates, I’d argue that Chavez seems to be positioning himself to become (benign) dictator for life. It might not happen, but there would be no greater endorsement of his status than being democratically elected. So far, I think the Venezuelan elections have been tolerably free – but I will expect more freedom – not less – in future.

    And this isn’t a dig. But does it never occur to you that what you posit as your credentials carry in and of themselves an implicit bias? You don’t work at the State or Defence Department or get work as a consultant unless you adopt or develop ‘acceptable’ world views.

    I don’t presume to speak for Pablo, but I’d observe that you don’t get to work at in the US public service, as a consultant or in a university without knowing your subject and its ideological angles.


    I therefore return to my original question, which is where does his regime propose to head given the current and near-term context?

    I see a third option: a continued whithering away(™) of the non-executive branches of government and weakening of the sorts of civic bodies I mention above, with a view to perpetuating his primacy by populist means. This way requires money – it requires the oil to keep flowing, and the oil market to keep Venezuela lucrative. In the long term, it relies on his grand industrialisation plans working better (and faster) than Stalin’s did, and without the casualties. If the money dries up, he will have to resort to more and more desperate means, and that’s when the edifice starts to crack. Neil’s point is also a good one – he can’t really rely on saying `I’m better than that guy’ about Obama.

    Crunch time will come pretty soon. In my view, Chavez’ reforms have done more good than they have harm, so far. That won’t always be true. At some stage there will come a tipping point, where his populism moves from being an expression of democracy to an expression of ideological dogma. At, or just before that point, other democratic institutions have their opportunity to make their influence felt and prevent Venezuela from tipping too far. If they haven’t found themselves withered away in the mean time.


  15. Pablo on February 18th, 2009 at 21:55

    I had a feeling that you would use my USG service as evidence of implicit bias. You omitted that I also worked with various human rights NGOs–Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Amnesty, Americas Watch–and have a pre-USG history of involvement in anti-authoritarian politics in several countries. I know authoritarians very well, regardless of their ideology. That was my utility to these organisations: I provided objective reads of situations based upon my knowledge of the historical and contextual facts. When I realized that I could not change things working inside the USG machine, I emigrated.

    The fact that you used the Telegraph as a source (even to slam it) made me wonder how much you have read on the subject. If you are taking your views from sources like NACLA and the like you are reading vulgar Lefty propaganda. The fact that you called the Human Rights Watch report a “hatchet job” is quite alarming, given that that is the same organization that was the first to condemn the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and has a long and storied history of defending human rights in a wide range of authoritarian (and democratic ) contexts. The fact that the solidarity Left got all defensive–and that Chavez kicked the Chilean HRW delegation head out of the country for daring to be critical–says more about the blinders of the solidarity Left and Chavez’s insecurity than it does anything about HRW.

    Neil is correct in noting that without Bush as a whipping boy, attention will focus more sharply inward on Chavez’s machinations. I am not entirely sure about Lew’s third option, but it does seem clear that autonomous civil society organisations are being crowded out by state-controlled (corporatist) MBR (Boliviarian) agencies. So long as the regime delivers on its redistributive promises this will be OK for the majority, but should the golden goose of oil loose its luster, then things could get ugly. But it will have to go a long way to match the ugliness of Argentina (30,000 dead and disappeared, the same number tortured), Chile (15,000 dead or disappeared,even more tortured) or Brazil (10,000 dead or disappeared, even more tortured) or Uruguay (200 dead, 30 thousand imprisoned, tortured or exiled) from the 1960s to the 1980s (to say nothing of other US backed capitalist authoritarian regimes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). In that regard, I still believe that if Chavez is confronted with killing his countrymen and women in numbers or conceding defeat, he is more likely to do the latter. He is not Pinochet–or Fidel Castro, for that matter.

    I will not go into the lack of foreign investment, capital flight, brain drain, profound social alienation (manifest in the so-called “beauty queen culture”) and other aspects of Venezuelan reality, but suffice it to say that it is not the worker’s paradise the solidarity Left make it out to be NOR is it the totalitarian monster the neo-conservative Right perceive it to be.

    As for me: I despise authoritarians regardless of their ideology although I see the attractiveness to the masses of regimes that are “by the few, for the many,” as opposed to those that are “by the few, for the few.”

    For good Left critiques (and kudos) for the Boliviarian revolution best to see Latin American Perspectives. For more scholarly treatments see Latin American Politics and Society, Journal of Latin American Studies, Hispanic American Historical Review, Latin American Weekly Reports, North/South and of course the professional journal literature in Spanish and Portuguese (DADOS, Desarrollo Economico, Estudios Internacionales, Politica y Sociedad, Revista Mexicana de Sociologia, etc).

  16. Clint Heine on February 18th, 2009 at 22:28

    Nome, I’m not too sure what you’re saying because it looks like you’re playing the person rather than the debate. However I do like that you used that example of how much better Venezuela is than the US, however simplistic it is.

    Pablo, I’m impressed. I didn’t know your background at all until reading this thread. I have been reading about Chavez for a few years with many different sources, most being concerned about the nature of this.

    I see it in slow motion, a textbook example of an authoritarian in waiting.

    Zeppelin. I have sources – but wonder if you’ll accept them as you have shown you don’t like any of the MSM or popular well researched sources. I just feel that mine will disappoint you!

  17. imperial zeppelin on February 18th, 2009 at 22:48


    Firstly, I used the Independent (not the Telegraph) merely as an example of MSM coverage and bias, positing that the bias is due to them getting their info from the supposedly suppressed corporate media operating quite freely within Venezuela.

    Secondly, one of the NGO’s you worked for ( and which I presume you hold in high regard) are as equally alarming as I in their take on the HRW report then? Or is the cause for alarm the HRW report? You decide.

    “Any reservation COHA may have had over taking issue with a sister organization was voided by the egregiously inappropriate behavior exhibited by HRW. Most specifically it was the issuance of this report and the needlessly venomous tone resorted to by HRW’s head for Latin America, Jose Miguel Vivanco. In his charges, HRW’s lead researcher and writer of the report used intemperate language and patently disingenuous tactics to field a series of anti-Chavez allegations that are excessive and inappropriate. It is not a matter that President Chavez and the Venezuelan government are above reproach—far from it. The problem is the presence of a mean-spirited tone and a lack of balance and fair play that characterizes Vivanco’s reportage and his tendentious interpretation of the alleged misdeeds of the Chavez revolution are demonstrably bereft of scale and accuracy.”

    Full text here.

    Any debate of whether the Bolivarian revolution will degenerate into some parody of the 20th C USSR or develop into something truly inspiring is a difficult one to have when the situation is fogged by repeated and demonstratively false claims (media shut downs etc), some of which are unquestioningly repeated throughout comments here.

  18. Pablo on February 18th, 2009 at 23:08

    IZ: I stand corrected about the Independent. You of course realise that forcing a broadcaster to go cable instead of free to air in a country where only 10 percent of the people have access to cable is de facto censorship (although I happen to agree that the broadcaster in question has ties to the disloyal opposition). Making University professors teach “approved” texts smacks of ideological insecurity. Mandating government control of all newsprint is a controlling move inimical to free speech. As Lew noted, if Chavez and Co. feel secure in their support, why not open up the debate? Heck, if the Yanks back the opposition, that will be the best thing to happen to Chavez as it will whip up anti-Yank nationalist sentiment (the last refuge of Left authoritarians in the region).

    My old boss Larry Birns and colleagues at COHA (which is funded by the AFL-CIO, some liberal democratic benefactors, and advocacy groups) do not like the centre-right Chilean (Vivanco) who was the head of the HRW delegation to Venezuela and who was the lead author of the country report, which is at times strident in tone (it reads better in Spanish than it does English, quite frankly, because Spanish is a more emotive language to begin with). I cannot say that I am impressed by Vivanco either (although he and his researchers were reacting to the constant tailing and interference they encountered while in Venezuela), but HRW is much more than one man and it vetted and released the report knowing that it would be controversial and anger many of their supporters as well as the Venezuelan government. As far as your noting the COHA criticism I say: Fair enough. However, they do not dispute the thrust of that report. Just because things are said in a tactless way does mean that they are untrue.

    I will say that the more I engage with you the more I enjoy doing so.

    Clint: No big deal with my background. I just keep/kept myself busy on several fronts given my interests. I truly wish, though, that any arguments external to those on Kiwipolitico threads be kept outside of this forum.

  19. imperial zeppelin on February 19th, 2009 at 00:04


    I will say that the more I engage with you the more I enjoy doing so.


    However, your still repeating untruths! Did you actually read through the COHA link? You didn’t, did you? If you had, then it’s beyond me how you can still assert “Mandating government control of all newsprint is a controlling move inimical to free speech.” when there is no such mandated government control of newsprint.

    El Universal and El Nacional are virulently oppositional newspapers and the editor of El Nuevo Pais, went on the box and stated “Hugo is going to end up like Mussolini, hung with his head towards the floor.” See

    Can you imagine a parallel statement being uttered in NZ? I’d suggest the recently repealed sedition laws would have kicked in. But the point is that it can happen in Venezuela and is hardly indicative of suppression of free speech.

    And COHA do dispute the thrust of the report and give examples of falsehoods within it. As they indicate in the first paragraph…”The letter also criticizes the report for making unsubstantiated allegations, and that some of the sources that Human Rights Watch relied on in the report are not credible.”

    Pablo. Being strident is one thing. Unsubstantiated allegations and uncredible sources are another. And when Vivanco states “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…” then what is left to be said with regards to impartiality or objectivity.

    As a not immaterial aside, I see the greatest danger to the Bolivarian Revolution coming from the Left authoritarians…people and organisations I have absolutely no time for, for damned good reason.

  20. Pablo on February 19th, 2009 at 00:46

    Crickey IZ, all newsprint in Venezuela is supplied by the government. That is a well known fact and not uncommon to many other governments.The tone of discourse in all Latin American politics, and certainly Venezuela’s is full of hyperbole that would not wash in Anglo-Saxon society (recall Chavez’s “stench of sulfur and the devil” speech at the UN a couple of years ago, which was treated with derision by the assembled diplomats). But it is part of the discourse of politics in Venezuela and needs to be seen in that context–or do you deny that Chavez has a few extremely harsh things to say about those who oppose him? ( Slightly off topic: if you really want to hear crazed reactionary hyperbole and incitements to violence, you need to access Cuban-American TV stations in Miami, which now offer panel discussion shows with Venezuelan exiles and Cuban-American hosts in which the right-wing murderous hysteria is vented in hurricane force. That is part of the reason I enjoy going back there, as it makes for excellent political circus after the boredom of political debate in NZ and the place that I am now living (not that there is much political debate here).

    Larry and the COHA crowd do not present firm rebuttal evidence to their claims of HRW falsehoods, so the HRW claim and COHA counter-claims are at an impasse. And, as much as I like COHA’s work, they are peddling an internal ideological line that has as much to do with their domestic political stance as do the objective facts of the case (it has to do with cultivating and maintaining Left-liberal donors and opposing Bush, who was still in office when this all hit the fan).

    At least we agree that Left authoritarians are, at best, only slightly better than their Right counterparts. Lets just see where Chavez and the Boliviarian project eventually wind up. Depressingly, it looks like Obama is going to continue the general thrust of the US line vis a vis Chavez and the LATAM Left in general, so that is another hope for change about to be betrayed ( I say this because I know the people he has selected to run Interamerican Affairs in State and the Pentagon).

  21. Clint Heine on February 19th, 2009 at 02:30

    Clint: No big deal with my background. I just keep/kept myself busy on several fronts given my interests. I truly wish, though, that any arguments external to those on Kiwipolitico threads be kept outside of this forum.

    I agree, I just think Nome doesn’t like me although I have no idea who he is! :)

  22. Phil Sage (sagenz) on February 19th, 2009 at 06:46

    Pablo – Interesting post and thread. I see Mugabe as being the closest parallel. There is far more stalinist statist to dislike about Chavez than anything remotely Bolivaran nationalist.

    To quote wiki Bolívar called for a constitutional convention at Ocaña during April 1828.

    He had seen his dream of eventually engendering an American Revolution-style federation between all the newly independent republics, with a government ideally set-up solely to recognize and uphold individual rights, succumb to the pressures of particular interests throughout the region, which rejected that model and allegedly had little or no allegiance to liberal principles.

    Chavez will become steadily more autocratic and less democratic. It is only through gross media manipulation that he has achieved a democratic majority. Hardly a moral democratic mandate recently.

    So I agree with Lew to that extent but in the absence of oil bounty popular discontent will be higher and therefore the move towards autocracy quicker.

    IMHO Venezuela is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

    That said I went to world bank and compared some stats. Venezuela does do well over the last decade GNI per Capita Atlas method.
    1988 1998 2007 Growth 88-98 98-07
     Colombia 1240 2440 3250 97% 33%
     Venezuela 3240 3360 7320 4% 118%
     World 3788 5097 7958 35% 56%
     Chile 1830 5270 8350 188% 58%
     Argentina 3920 8020 6050 105% -25%

  23. Lew on February 19th, 2009 at 08:52


    Can you imagine a parallel statement being uttered in NZ?

    No need to imagine it. Remember five of the last nine years.

    I’d suggest the recently repealed sedition laws would have kicked in.

    But it didn’t.


  24. Neil on February 19th, 2009 at 09:28

    Depressingly, it looks like Obama is going to continue the general thrust of the US line vis a vis Chavez and the LATAM Left in general, so that is another hope for change about to be betrayed ( I say this because I know the people he has selected to run Interamerican Affairs in State and the Pentagon).

    That’s interesting. I would have thought that there would be some change at least with Obama – there looks to be some thawing with Cuba. Not with Chavez though, I think he’ll have to do a bit of fist unclenching first.

  25. imperial zeppelin on February 19th, 2009 at 12:12

    interesting that you consider the COHA criticism of the HRW report to be somewhat invalid because they do not offer ” firm rebuttal evidence ” of the falsehoods contained in the reports.

    On one issue, just to take an example, the claim that people are denied government jobs and services because of their politics is, as COHA point out, based on one telephone conversation from the nephew of an elderly woman. That’s no basis for making a claim of systemic denial of, for example, medical services. One telephone call. One person. And HRW reports….

    “Citizens who exercised their right to call for the referendum—invoking one of the new participatory mechanisms championed by Chávez during the drafting of the 1999 Constitution—were threatened with retaliation and blacklisted from some government jobs and services.”

    COHA goes on to point out that the civil service ” is still loaded with employees who are against the government ” and posits that due to the polarisation of society, instances of individual discrimination occur in BOTH the private and state sector.

    Whereas that is not desirable, it is not unique to Venezuela. NZ has anti-discrimination employment law in place, but it doesn’t prevent discrimination. The fact that I’ve been denied employment because of my political leanings ( yes it has happened and the same has contributed to dismissals I’ve experienced) does not mean that there exists in NZ a culture of systemic discrimination any more than it would in Venezuela.

    The COHA letter you casually dismiss contains over 100 U.S. and foreign Latin American scholar’s signatures. Are we to believe they are all either COHA employees or idiots and lackeys being duped by COHA?

    I find your responses deeply ironic in light of the fact that you

    .. phrased the post as an interrogatory so that readers could ponder the pros and cons of the Chavez experiment without ideological blinders, or at least when doing so having to confront their own biases.

    Gregory Wilpert offers a broader and deeper analysis of the HRW report than that covered in the COHA letter. It is here.

    The HRW report has informed much of the commentary on Venezuela, both within the MSM and beyond. If it was a fair and accurate report, then fair enough, but the analysis’s of the report show conclusively that it is anything but.

    And that is serious insofar as it cripples debate/ discussion on what is unfolding in Venezuela by introducing a plethora of demonstrated falsehoods that feed directly into people’s bias’s resulting in a tennis match of accusation/rebuttal in place of a serious discussion on the possible or likely results of the unfolding revolution.

    One more link to shed light on Venezuelan happenings which I hope you take the time to read….Which Way Venezuela? (July 2008) For anyone with a genuine interest, many more links flow from that article ….

  26. Pablo on February 19th, 2009 at 17:09

    Neil: It is not surprising that the Clintonite retreads who have been appointed to head Inter-American affairs in State and Defense advocate a soft opening to Cuba. They tried to do that in the mid- 1990s but were undone by a Republican controlled Congress, the Elian Gonzalez fiasco and Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, and Monica Lewinski (since after that Clinton could get nothing done in the way of policy). I say that because I was involved in the original attempts at a quiet reapprochment in 1993-94 (with mixed success). Most of these retreads are recent congressional staffers so their views will be more atuned to US domestic politics rather than LATAM conditions. Hence, the approach to Chavez may not change that much (perhaps it depends on how the “opening” to Cuba goes in the first instance, which is largely driven by the demands for an opening from Cuban-Americans, who have shifted positions on the issue in recent years due to generational and demographic changes within that community).

    Phil: Mugabe is a former revolutionary nationalist who has degenerated into a personalist kleptocracy. The first part of the equation has parallels in Chavez. Yet Stalinism requires institutionalisation of dogma and an effective state apparatus to implement dogma-driven policy. Zimbabwe has neither. Mugabe is more like Batista than anything else-started out as a hero and ends as a murderous thief. His days are numbered. At present Chavez is a whole different ball game and we must remember that his export commodity, unlike Zimbabwe’s, is an extremely elastic good with high value for emerging powers like China and India to say nothingof estbalished industrial markets. So the chances of institutionalising his regime are better. But it is possible his regime may degenerate as well…we shall see.

    IZ: It is not COHA’s letter. The open letter was first circulated among Latin American Studies Association members (of which I am one), then picked up by various advocacy and solidarity groups. Out of a membership of over 5000 people of many nationalities and disciplinary interests, 100 +/- members signed the letter. Do the math. I understand the HRW is doing an internal audit of the Venezuela country report. If it turns out they agree with the critique you have outlined I shall readily concede your point.

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