Hugo Chavez was a ‘Great Leader’? Er, no, he wasn’t, says a former admirer.
The fading Venezuelan president “was neither a tyrant nor a democratic liberator but a hybrid, an elected autocrat, and the nuances of that category often escaped his friends and critics abroad,” writes Rory Carroll, The Guardian’s Caracas-based Latin America correspondent from 2006 to 2012.
“He relied on the ballot box for legitimacy while concentrating power and eroding freedoms, shunting Venezuela into a twilight zone where you could do what you wanted – until the president said you couldn’t,” he writes in The New Statesman, the UK’s left-wing weekly.
Maria Lourdes Afiuni (left) made the mistake of defying Chávez by releasing a banker accused of fraud, notes Carroll:
Chávez erupted. He went on television to accuse Afiuni of having been bribed, of being a bandit, and said in earlier times she would have been shot. “We have to give this judge and the people who did this the maximum sentence . . . 30 years in prison in the name of the dignity of the country!”
A single mother in her forties, Afiuni had cancer. Inmates attacked her and threatened to “drink her blood”. An international campaign for her release was launched but on this bright January day she remained incarcerated and hunched in her cell, afraid to mix with the other inmates. “I’m here as the president’s prisoner,” she said.
“Afiuni’s plight was not typical of Hugo Chávez’s rule,” writes Carroll:
There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror.
Chávez praised Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi as brothers but restrained the bloodshed, settling for selective intimidation and thuggery. Repression was usually a last resort – when oil revenues, charisma and political skill were not enough for him to get his way.
Instead, Chávez’s critics faced a range of less blatant threats, says Carroll, author of the forthcoming book, Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez:
The first weapon was humiliation. Intelligence agents passed recordings of intercepted calls to a chavista television show, The Razorblade, which would gleefully spin and broadcast them, to an accompaniment of animal noises.
The second weapon was disqualification from running for office. Leopoldo López, a potential presidential rival descended from Simón Bolívar’s sister, was accused of corruption, tangled in legal knots and sidelined.
The third was emasculation. Antonio Ledezma was elected the metropolitan mayor of Caracas but became irrelevant. A red-shirted mob occupied the city hall, with police complicity, and Chávez transferred the mayor’s powers to a newly created city authority run by an apparatchik….
Union leaders who agitated too hard for workers’ rights, such as Rubén González, were jailed for unlawful assembly. Political prisoners, to use that loaded term, seldom numbered more than a dozen at any one time. A small number that sent a loud message: Chávez owned the courts.
The Barrios family knows all about rule of law in chavista Venezuela.
“Jorge Antonio Barrios was just nine years old in 1998 when the Aragua state police came looking for his father, Benito,” The Economist reports:
He watched as the officers beat him and took him away. Later that day Benito died from multiple gunshot wounds. The police said they shot him in self-defense after he opened fire on them. As is customary in Venezuela, no one was prosecuted. The country has one of the world’s highest murder rates, and according to academic studies, 96% of homicides go unpunished.
Benito’s brother, Narciso, was the next to die at police hands and another seven men in the family have been fatally shot since.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which found that “in the majority of these acts, members of the same police force of the state of Aragua appear to be clearly implicated,” directed the government to provide protection to family members, and says it has not complied.
Venezuela is “hardly a Stalinist dystopia, but not the democratic New Jerusalem Chávez’s propagandists proclaimed,” the Guardian’s Carroll notes:
Other Latin American governments knew of the abuses, that elections were free though not fair, but stayed silent. Venezuela’s hollowed economy required huge imports from its neighbours to keep shelves stocked. Why risk the bonanza?
While Chávez’s designated heir, Vice- President Nicolás Maduro, known to be close to Cuba, “does an awkward tango” with his rival Diosdado Cabello, Venezuela remains in the twilight zone.
“The longer-term challenge will be the economy and rebuilding institutions – ministries, the judiciary, the armed forces, local government – which have been gutted and have become hyper-politicized. It will be messy and painful,’ Carroll concludes.