It was quite a week for Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez. He was allowed to rant at the United Nations about how the U.S. is the big bad bully on the block and stands in the way of the fulfillment and freedom of the world's people. He was hosted on international TV by Larry King and handed softball questions left and right. And he attended, along with a few close allies, the (coincidentally timed) "world premier" of Oliver Stone's new film about (who else?) Hugo Chavez. Stone's premise is that Chavez gets such a bad rap in the world's media that Stone, single-handedly, will help right the wrong by giving Hugo's side of the story and telling the world what a great guy this new Latin American revolutionary is. Bunk!
Chavez is certainly not the worst leader that Latin America has ever had. He is not an idiot, and he is not the latest version of Lucifer. But he is a despot, a popular and populist demagogue, and he has no respect for the rule of law, either in his own suffering nation or anywhere in the world. Chavez is charismatic and has well-tuned street smarts, and he has learned the lessons that every caudillo in Latin America learns eventually or falls from power: maintain total control; intimidate or jail or disappear your enemies or those who one day might be your enemies; buy off those you cannot intimidate. Since Chavez was elected a decade ago, he has systematically undermined the free, liberal institutions of Venezuela's democratic state: the courts, the press, the congress and the bureaucracy. They were corrupt to begin with, so it was not overly difficult. But they are more corrupt today.
Now, the world's Left, those who look back fondly on the Marxist-Leninist structures built by Mao and Trotsky and Stalin, point to Chavez as the new Latin American revolutionary, carrying on the traditions of Jose Marti, Benito Juarez, Fidel Castro, Che Guevarra, Salvador Allende, et.al. But is he?
Chavez, as a populist, is leading a state that provides more support for the poor, just as Bolivia's Evo Morales is using natural gas revenues to create new "bonos" to give to the poor in Bolivia, making their lives marginally better and, not coincidentally, buying votes at the polls. But the Venezuelan state is increasingly totalitarian, and once Chavez is gone those institutions, now dependent on the whims and quirks of a megalomaniac, will have to be rebuilt. In addition, Venezuela's oil-wealth will obviously go by the wayside eventually, leaving its people as poor and miserable as they ever were, and angrier than they ever have been.
The truly scary revolution in Venezuela is not the one Chavez says he is leading today. It will be the one that comes after he is gone.