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Hugo Chavez and the Danger of Silence

By Seth Antiles

06.10.05 | Accurately Assessing the Challenge. We who think about Venezuela are quick to criticize the opposition for failing to articulate a hopeful vision of the future and offering little other than criticism of Chavez. Those of us who write about Venezuela share a characteristic with the opposition—we too have done little other than criticize. We focus most of our efforts discussing the abuses of the Chavez regime. The intense criticism of Chavez, and the lack of positive results to show for it, is quite revealing. Had large segments of Venezuelan society not been excluded from economic development for decades, perhaps a critique of Chavez’s failed and authoritarian policies would have been sufficient to remove him from the presidency. Had large segments of Venezuelan society not felt rage from being alienated by the old economic and political elites, Chavez’s message of revenge would not have resonated with so many Venezuelans in the first place, and he would never have been elected president.

Chavez’s ability to hang on to power and spread his influence throughout Latin America despite the appalling deterioration in economic, political, and social conditions suggests an explanation far more complex than an incompetent opposition movement. In fact, when we chalk Chavez’s durability up to a horribly incompetent opposition, we minimize the enormity of the challenge that confronts not only Venezuela but all of Latin America. To understand the challenge before us it is helpful to try to better comprehend the psychological grip Chavez holds on a large segment of Venezuelan society.

Chavez—A malignant, narcissistic, charismatic leader—and his bond with Society

Chavez’s supporters are comprised of those living in the developing world (mostly in Latin America) and those living in the developed world. The overwhelming majority of those in developed countries who admire Chavez do so either because he effectively sells his Robin Hood image abroad, or because he is fearless and relentless in his attacks against President Bush, a highly appealing target at the moment. Chavez’s supporters living in the developed world are either so enthralled by his verbal attacks against Bush that they are willing to avert their eyes from Chavez’s authoritarian lurch or they are ignorant of the economic, political, and social destruction that he has waged.

The grip Chavez has on his supporters in Latin America, and Venezuela in particular, is more difficult to understand because his domestic supporters are also the victims of his destructive policies. Dr. Jerrold Post provides important insights on “malignant, narcissistic, charismatic leaders” in his book titled “Leaders and Followers in a Dangerous World.” [1]

The relationship between a “malignant, narcissistic, charismatic leader” and his followers in society is similar to the codependent relationship between an alcoholic and his/her spouse. Just as a codependent personality is likely to seek out an addict, an “ill” society is likely to seek out a messianic leader. Those segments of society who have been alienated because their basic social needs have been left unsatisfied are ill. These alienated, ill segments have a tendency to be drawn to messianic leaders. The messianic leader, hungering for an admiring response to counteract his inner sense of worthlessness, masks his profound sense of inner doubt by conveying a sense of grandeur, conviction, and certainty. There is a quality of mutual intoxication between the leader and his followers, but the power of hypnosis ultimately depends on the eagerness of society to cede their independence to their savior.

The “malignant narcissist” intuitively understands that his supporters’ basic social needs have gone unfulfilled. He knows he can harness their rage to enhance his power. Filled with paranoia, he cannot tolerate capable, autonomous, and strong people around him because he ultimately sees them as threats. Therefore the leader is unable to devise good policies that deliver better living conditions to his supporters. Similarly, a profound sense of insecurity makes the malignant narcissist unable to accept responsibility for his mistakes and failed policies. Instead, the leader is in constant search for enemies to blame for his failures, knowing that his base will accept the destruction of the enemy as a substitute for a better quality of life.

Such leaders are perceived by their followers as superhuman. Followers suspend judgment and do not question his actions. The ill segment of society gives their leader unqualified emotional support, complying unconditionally with all their leaders’ directives.

Post considers Hitler, Kim Jung Ill, Saddam Hussein, and Fidel Castro to be “malignant, narcissistic, charismatic leaders”. Anyone who has observed Chavez and his relationship with his followers will recognize that he too fits this leadership profile. Regarding Castro, Post writes that he has demonstrated a remarkable perseverance when other leaders would have given up. He demonstrates an ability to improvise and manipulate facts which enable him to turn embarrassments into victories. Post poses the question, what happens when a revolutionary personality like Castro (or for our purposes Chavez) succeeds in overthrowing the establishment, eliminates or minimizes the ability of opposition forces to function, but still confronts internal criticism and loss of support due to domestic failures? In the absence of domestic enemies, he searches for external enemies, blames the United States for the country’s economic problems, and seeks to export the revolution in search of sympathizers abroad. Post concludes his section on Castro, stating that driven by dreams of glory he will not yield the seat of power.

Making the Proper Historical Comparisons

When seen through the analytical lens of Jerrold Post it appears that the challenges that confront the Venezuelan opposition may be far more difficult than many believe. It has been tempting to draw lessons from the democratic transitions that have taken place in Eastern Europe and in Latin America, but the Chavez regime shares more in common with the regimes Jerrold Post considers than with many of the past authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Those authoritarian regimes (with the exception of the Pinochet regime) were bureaucratic in nature—they did not depend on the connection between a charismatic leader and his needy, deluded mass followers. When bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes failed to satisfy basic economic and social needs, the overwhelming majority of society rebelled as opposed to being spell bound by the lies and manipulations of their “savior”. The overwhelming majorities living under bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes were willing to embrace alternatives, even if those alternatives were not phenomenally charismatic or inspiring. In contrast, much of Venezuelan society is “ill” and they yearn for a messiah to save them. The “ill” sector of society includes the 10% to 20% of hard core Chavistas and perhaps as many as the 30% to 50% of those that can be considered “resigned” Chavistas. The latter are less devoted to Chavez than the hard core but they will not abandon him unless they see a truly inspirational alternative. If most of Venezuelan society were “healthy”, then any mediocre alternative would have been attractive in comparison to Chavez.

None of the leaders considered by Post were overthrown by internal forces. Those who were removed were ousted through external force. This fact not only demonstrates the hypnotic control these leaders have over substantial portions of society, but also their paranoiac need to exert absolute personal control over all institutions in society, including legal, political, economic and military institutions. Making the challenge especially difficult for the opposition is the fact that modern day authoritarians have become more sophisticated and subtle in their mechanisms of control and intimidation, having learned from the mistakes of the authoritarians of the past. [2]

Putting Venezuela in the context of Latin America

Chavez’s broad appeal and growing influence throughout Latin America suggests that Chavez should not be seen exclusively as a Venezuelan problem. Leaders of Latin America have refused to criticize Chavez in large part because they understand that the economic and social policies of the 1990s broadly embodied by the “Washington Consensus” have not significantly improved the living conditions of many of the poor, leaving millions of people feeling alienated. Consequently, many if not most of Latin American society is susceptible to falling for the manipulations of a malignant, narcissistic, charismatic leader. Latin America’s leaders fear that Chavez’s charismatic radicalism and autocratic political model may appeal to large segments of their societies. They fear that by criticizing Chavez they may undermine support for their fragile democracies.

Chavez’s enhanced standing in Latin America is reinforced by his anti-U.S. rhetoric at a time when anti-imperialism has great appeal throughout the world. His confrontation with the United States gives him a natural entrance into adversaries and critics of the Bush administration in the United States and Europe as well.

Faded Hopes for Lula and the Moderate Left

When President Lula of Brazil was elected to office he offered the promise to bring a new, more inclusive model of development that combined sound economic policy with clean and democratic government. His policies had the potential to have a moderating effect on the left across Latin America, and the power to hold Chavez’s radical, undemocratic model from gaining broader appeal. However, Lula's capacity to reinvent the left has been dealt a tremendous blow by the corruption scandal that has severely tarnished the image of his administration. There is little hope that Lula can recover the legitimacy to overhaul Brazil’s political system that benefits certain industrial and agricultural groups while excluding millions of people. At best, Lula will finish his term, maintaining high interest rates and tight fiscal policy to preserve the confidence of financial markets and maintain modest GDP growth rates of 3% to 4%. [3]

With little hope for economic and political inclusion under Lula, there is indeed a risk that the underclass of Brazil and Latin American may suffer from “democracy fatigue.” Chavez’s messianic, revolutionary solutions and his thirst for revenge against the enemy may become increasingly enticing. Chavez’s Bolivarian movement is an international force with an increasingly attractive ideology. With Venezuela’s massive oil revenues he even provides an alternative source of financing from the IMF, and at easier terms.

A Dangerous Silence

Chavez, with Castro’s help, is engaging the world in a battle of ideas and he is winning hearts and minds among sectors of Latin American society who feel they have not benefited from democracy and free markets. Throughout Latin America those who support democracy and free markets treat Chavez as a Venezuelan problem, refusing to engage in a battle of ideas. While it is possible that “good” messianic leaders will emerge and mesmerize the desperate segments of Latin American society, this is unlikely. After all, how many Gandhi’s, Mandela’s or King’s have appeared throughout history?

A more realistic approach would be for those in Latin America who believe in free markets and democracy to engage Chavez in a battle of ideas. Positive and inspirational messages require far more creativity than does mere criticism. Leaders, political parties, and members of civilian groups who believe in freedom must reach across borders to one another and work to find new ideas and inspirational messages. They must promote policies and offer solutions to citizens that will be seen as improving their day to day lives. [4]

The poor image of the United States in the world means that it is not in a position to engage Chavez alone. The democratic countries of Latin America must vigorously engage. The phenomenon of an ill society that is susceptible to the draw of dangerous, charismatic leaders is not uniquely Venezuelan. Chavez is devoting vast resources toward spreading his venom beyond Venezuela’s borders. Continued silence on the part of Latin America’s leaders and societies is the equivalent of submerging one’s head in the sand, simply wishing the threat away.

seth_antiles at


1. Jerrold Post is Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs and Director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University. He is the founder and former director of the Center for Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the CIA.

2. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita from NYU and George Downs from the Hoover Institution describe the growing sophistication of authoritarian regimes in their article “Development and Democracy”, which appears in the September/October, 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs.

3. For a discussion of Lula’s failures see Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s article “Lula’s Demise”, September 23, 2005.

4. The best hope for political alternatives to Chavez inside of Venezuela may come from local level politicians. A good example is Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of the municipality of Chacao in Caracas. Lopez, has successfully implemented programs that have improved education and health services, and he has brought down crime rates. His local successes have occurred despite continuous threats against him by Chavez’s security apparatus.

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