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The idealistic left

By J. | Reason Over Might

22.12.04 | Here is something that provokes puzzlement in many Venezuelans, and that also troubles me: what is it with the love affair between French intellectuals and nominally socialist Latin American autocrats like Chávez? There seems to be a certain kind of blindness, a willingness to let oneself be led astray by romantically tinged images of revolutionary heroes struggling manfully against the hegemonial Übermacht of the big Satan, the USA.

I do not want to detract from the flaws of the U.S., of which there are many: in the past, its support for Latin American dictators (provided they were not socialist or communist, like Castro) such as Pinochet; its militaristic jingoism; its recent unilateralism, not only in terms of leading war, but also in environmental and social issues; during the past few years, its troubling disregard for norms of international discourse such as the Geneva Convention (Guantánamo) and the principles derived from the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (pre-emptive declarations of war); and its overall double standards and hypocrisy regarding "interventions" in other countries.

However, that is a different discussion, and one that is, of course, missing the entire proverbial other side of the story, namely all the positive contributions the country has made to the global community. Let us leave the USA out of the analysis for the moment and focus on some of the regimes that the international Left is so fond of defending: Castro's Cuba and Chávez's Venezuela.

Cuba is a de facto dictatorship. Fidel Castro has been in power for over four decades, and there appears to be no possibility of any change in leadership before Castro's death. Any dissidence is prohibited. There is no freedom of expression. The courts of law are not independent, nor is the legislative. Opposition members are jailed for long periods of time. Private enterprise is suppressed. Social advancement without membership in the party is well-nigh impossible. The secret police monitors the population with the help of informants. Citizens are prohibited from leaving the island except under extremely restrictive terms. Children are wards of the state, not of their parents. Political indoctrination is pervasive, and starts in kindergarten.

Has the lack of personal freedoms been compensated, for instance through economic advancement? No. Cuba's economic situation is catastrophic. The population is forced to scrounge for even the most basic articles of clothing and hygiene. Women (and men) have to prostitute themselves to get by. And blaming the USA and its trade embargo of Cuba is overly simplistic. The roots of the misery lie in Castro's economic policy of state planning, the suppression of entrepreneurship, and the loss of economic support from the once-powerful Soviet Union, which used the island as an outpost usefully close to its arch-enemy, the USA.

Apologists for Castro's authoritarianism would be likely to mention the Cuban health system at this point. This is akin to mentioning Hitler's Autobahns to place him in a more favourable economic perspective. Providing free medical care of questionable quality to a population with no other recourse cannot justify oppressing people. Cubans are voting with their feet against this deal, by trying to leave the island by any means possible and at great risk to their lives.

These are obviously not the actions of happy citizens. Free medical care is clearly not enough. Castro has caused untold suffering and pain to two generations. He has brought equality at the lowest possible level to "his" citizens. So why do otherwise bright individuals such as left-leaning intellectuals persist in defending Castro? Is this the same mindset that made prominent intellectuals defend Stalin's Russia in the 1930s and Pol Pot's Cambodia in the 1970s?

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez is obviously not yet in the same league as Castro; but that is exactly what he is aiming for. His actions and his words match: the model he is working towards is Cuban. One of his campaign slogans during the first elections, posted on billboards around Caracas, was "Navegando hacia la mar de la felicidad Cubana" (sailing towards the sea of Cuban happiness). He meets often with the Cuban leader, who seems to have adopted him as his protegé. Chávez won his election on the promises of more equality, less corruption, and more democracy in Venezuela. What has become of these promises?

Corruption is worse than ever, so much so that Chávez himself mentioned the need to fight it after supposedly winning the referendum in August. What will become of this objective? I predict it will fizzle like a wet fuse. More democracy? It certainly doesn't seem that way. Anybody who followed the runup to the referendum could see how democracy was being manipulated to ensure the Colonel's re-election. The referendum was as crooked as the recent elections in Ukraine, and for many of the same reasons. A "participative democracy" -- a favourite term of Chávez's -- seems to be a democracy in which only those participate who support him. It's a bit like Henry Ford's choices for the Model T: you can have it in any colour you like, as long as it's black. What choice? This pattern is also repeated in Chávez's attitude towards coups d'état: his own putsch in 1992 was good (he celebrates it every year), and all others are bad (he leaves out no opportunity to indiscriminately brand all those opposing him "golpistas").

Economically, Venezuela has had the good fortune during the past few years of an increase in world oil prices. The high prices have meant a cash bonanza for the country, with a total income of about 200 billion dollars -- a staggering amount of money. It is absolutely astounding to see the effect of this windfall on the Venezuelan economy: it is zero, zilch, nothing. Economic activity is lower than it has been in 15 years. A large chunk of the middle class is now poor, and the poor classes are worse off than ever before. The economy has actually shrunk during several years of Chávez's government. The existing infrastructure is decaying, and there are few signs of any new projects. Consumer demand is low. There is little economic investment (except for the oil industry, where the investing is being done by foreign firms), and still the state is increasing its levels of debt.

A part of the money is being used to fund social projects such as low-price markets and pharmacies as well as basic medical and educational measures. However, these measures are stopgap: they only address short-term symptoms, and not very well either (their success is not being measured, so there is no way of knowing whether the resources could have been put to better use). There is no investment in building a productive base for Venezuela that can substitute oil income once prices fall. What the Bolivarian government is creating is a populace dependent on state largesse -- and with it, the conditions for pain and suffering when the largesse is reduced, as it will have to be. What is happening here is not redistribution, but the use of state resources to increase the state's control of the population.

Other parts of the government budget go into buying 50 figher jets from Russia, into buying a license for manufacturing Kalashnikov assault rifles in Venezuela, into financing an average presidential spending rate of $60,000 a day (in a country were the yearly minimum wage is about $3,000), into paying for lobbying groups in the USA and propaganda in international media, and into supporting leftist movements in Latin America (oil for Castro, dollars for Morales, support for the FARC). And a large part of the money simply disappears into private hands. For instance, between 2 and 4 billion dollars went missing from the state's fund for macroeconomic stabilisation, and nobody knows where they are.

This is not the kind of state that deserves support from intellectuals. A different world is possible, but it should certainly be as different as possible from Castro's and Chávez's egomanical conceptions.

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