The Death of a Despot

In a different era, he might have been called a fascist. After all, Hugo Chávez was an anti-Semitic demagogue and chauvinistic nationalist who hated Israel, hated the United States, hated democracy, and favored state control of the economy. A onetime paratrooper and failed coup leader, Chávez aggressively militarized Venezuelan society, creating pro-government citizen brigades to serve as his own praetorian guard and arming them with Russian-made assault rifles. He threatened neighboring countries and constantly warned of looming foreign invasions. He promulgated wild conspiracy theories about Jews and Americans. He befriended the most reactionary and fascistic governments on earth, including the theocracy in Iran, the gangster regime in Russia, and the racist Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe.

And yet, through it all, Chávez remained a folk hero to Western leftists and “progressives,” who either ignored or excused his bigotry, his militarism, and his trampling of democracy. Many admirers have mourned his death by casting the Venezuelan radical as a champion of the poor who did what was necessary to transform a corrupt and unjust social order. In an article posted on the website of The Nation, NYU professor Greg Grandin acknowledged that Chávez “packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree, and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances.” However, in Grandin’s view, all of that was justified: “The biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.”

In other words: Chávez had to destroy Venezuela in order to save it.

There are many ways to measure the destruction. First, there is the economic toll: Venezuela is suffering from food shortages, goods shortages, electricity shortages, and 22 percent inflation. The state-run oil firm PDVSA has seen its debt load increase by 150 percent since 2007. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom says that even Communist Cuba respects property rights more than Venezuela does. And the South American nation might well be headed for a sovereign default.