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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Limits of Personalist Rule

By all accounts, Hugo Chavez, the flamboyant and charismatic president of Venezuela for the past 13 years, is very ill and may not survive his latest cancer surgery in Cuba. The entire country appears to be holding its collective breath as Venezuelans wait to see if Chavez will live or die. The case illustrates the risks of one-man, personalist rule in which enormous power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader and a small group of followers.

When Chavez announced to the nation that his cancer had recurred and that he was about to fly to Havana for another operation, my friend Mick in Venezuela wrote this:   

"Things really are looking grim for our President. And of course the opposition are gloating. Another election looms, and this time there is no-one of Chavez' charisma to rally the forces of Progressive Socialism. A sad day today, after the jubilation of the recent election victory."

This was my response: "It seems to be one of the risks and drawbacks of personalist leadership. Too much power, authority in one man's hands, and no viable structure or process for succession and continuity. And the potential for explosion post-Chavez is very great. Yes, sad."

Chavez has been proclaimed by many socialists and revolutionary leaders around the world as a visionary and game-changing political leader as he has proclaimed the "21st Century Socialist" revolution in Venezuela. But revolutions come and go, and seldom do they end up benefiting the majority of people. Mao dragged China out of the Dark Ages, and tens of millions starved to death along the way. The Soviets overthrew the ancient czarist regime and enslaved tens of millions in Russia and eastern Europe. Fidel Castro overthrew a corrupt oligarchy and pushed half of all Cubans off the island and half the rest into lives of mediocrity and want.

The "Founding Fathers" of the American Revolution installed a system of government that guarantees power to those who already have it (the white upper class majority), but they also established the means to improve the system over time and spread power throughout several competing and balanced insitutions (legislature, executive, judiciary). That is the saving grace of American democracy, and democracy in general.  Change that comes slowly, rather than overnight, and that promises to improve the lives of all over time is superior to wrenching change that fails in the end.

Chavez's "revolution" was a natural product of corruption, ineptitude and racism prevalent in Venezuela for many decades. Yes, he has improved the lives of many who never had anything before. But his promises of radical and fundamental change will likely come to nothing because of the concentration of powers in his hands alone, the ongoing corruption and poverty that persist throughout that land, and the very real possibility that violence and widespread civil unrest might destroy all the good that's been done and set back the country for a generation.

Yes, very sad.

Leaders in Bolivia, Russia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and various "republics" of eastern Europe and Africa might do well to take heed.

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