by Daniel Luban
The death of Hugo Chavez has triggered a predictably dizzying amount of commentary, and I’ll leave it to the experts to evaluate his complicated legacy in Venezuela and in Latin America more broadly. The accusations of “totalitarianism” from the right were clearly absurd and hypocritical — whatever his misdeeds, Chavez’s record paled in comparison to the right’s favorite juntas from the Cold War era. On the other hand, after talking to those more knowledgeable about Venezuela than I am, I get the sense that even many who were sympathetic to Chavez’s broad goals ended up being rather disappointed in him, and that opening up space for a generation of Latin American leaders who share many of his virtues without some of his vices might be his greatest legacy in the region.
But domestic politics aside, Chavez is also noteworthy as a champion — perhaps the last prominent champion — of the kind of “anti-imperialist” politics characteristic of the Cold War era. (I put “anti-imperialist” in quotes to emphasize that this style of politics was a historically specific phenomenon, not synonymous with opposition to imperialism in general.) Gamel Abdel Nasser was probably the progenitor of this style, and it proved highly influential on leftism during the Cold War — above all, in its frequent identification of imperialism with capitalism, and capitalism with the United States and Western Europe.
Chavez played from this script throughout his political career, initially with a fair amount of success. This success, of course, was centrally tied to the fact that the US and its allies frequently played their own (imperialist) role to the hilt as well. Most strikingly, there was the Bush administration’s endorsement of the 2002 coup against Chavez; more ubiquitously, there were all the free-trade pacts and IMF austerity programs imposed throughout Latin America. Chavez’s brand of anti-imperialism resonated, in other words, because it frequently continued to jibe with reality.
Still, recent years have revealed the limits of the old Cold War anti-imperialism, and Chavez’s reputation (on the left as much as elsewhere) has suffered as a result. The Arab Spring, in particular, demonstrated the pitfalls of taking every regime at odds with the US as an exemplar of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. By continuing to view the world through the Cold War prism, as Juan Cole notes, Chavez found himself in bed with Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; he insisted on seeing in them models of socialist self-determination that had little or nothing to do with reality. (One does not have to favor US intervention in Syria, Libya, or Iran to understand that anyone who views their leaders as heroic anti-imperialists deserving our steadfast support has gone badly astray.)
Some on the left take these developments as evidence that Chavez took a wrong turn — that he went from champion of liberation to apologist for tyranny. I think, on the contrary, that he was fairly consistent, and that the things he got wrong indicate the weaknesses of his underlying style of politics (just as the things he got right indicate its strengths.) In any case, the style itself was a throwback to an earlier era, and it may very well die with Chavez.