New York Times - Editorial
December 03, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chávez has narrowly lost his latest attempt to push forward a revolutionary socialist agenda. His oil-rich country, still bent on humbling the United States, is an instructive place from which to view the world, so here are eight rules of modern political life as seen from Venezuela:
1.) Trade trumps politics. Even as Chávez has been calling President Bush “the devil,” U.S.-Venezuela commercial ties have blossomed. This is the Western Hemisphere’s equivalent of the Taiwan-China relationship: political enemies engaged in booming business. Bilateral trade will be about $47 billion this year, up from 2006, with Venezuelan exports to the U.S. reaching $37 billion (overwhelmingly oil), and imports totaling close to $10 billion. Chávez derides the “little Yankees” but can’t get enough American cars and clothes for his “21st-century socialism.” Such links dilute danger.
2.) Globalization breeds nationalism. Global financial flows and technology limit the real power of politicians, who compensate with what’s left: national identity. Chávez’s last speech in an unsuccessful campaign to turn Venezuela into a state with a formally socialist constitution had nothing to say about the ideas involved, but much to say about “our real enemy, the American empire,” anticolonialism, Bolivarian glory and alleged threats from the Central Intelligence Agency or CNN. The radicalization of political discourse matters more than its content, as the 2004 U.S. election campaign also suggested.
3.) Oil centralizes power. Venezuelan oil fetches a lower price than most because it’s harder to refine, but Chávez is still pocketing between $4 billion and $6.7 billion a month, depending on whom you believe. Give anyone in an opaque, rather than open, society more than $100 million a day and he might start to rave about ruling until 2050, as Chavez has. “The tendency of the petrostate is to recentralize, petrify and personalize power,” said Margarita López Maya, a political scientist who long supported Chávez but is now disillusioned. From Moscow to Luanda to Caracas, this has been the case.
4.) Anti-U.S. networks are here to stay. Chávez is throwing his one-pipeline-state petrodollars around to cultivate bonds beyond comrades in Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Ties with Iran, Russia, China, Argentina, Ecuador and Caribbean states are intensifying. Never mind if it takes three weeks to ship oil to China and three days to the United States: Chávez wants to parlay his petrorevenue and pseudorevolution into a global anti-American role. Moscow is selling him arms; Beijing is selling whatever it can. These trends will continue beyond Bush. High oil prices will tend to accentuate the long-term erosion of American dominance.
5.) Ideologies are now served à la carte. Chávez makes common cause with the Cuban Revolution. But he parades under banners of Jesus Christ and calls Christ the “first revolutionary.” So much for Communism’s dismissal of the opium of the people. The Venezuelan leader talks a lot about women’s rights, but abortion remains illegal. Just as Chinese Communism can be capitalist, and Russian democracy look Leninist, Chávez’s Cuban-inspired socialism can be Catholic: what counts is power preservation.
6.) Democracy is tested. Chávez has held several referendums and elections since coming to power nine years ago, although none as close as yesterday’s. When opposition TV stations are curtailed, when birth certificates and national identity cards are bought for a few hundred dollars, when tens of billions of dollars go missing in the national budget, when the judiciary is subservient and corruption a way of life, democracy is challenged. Chávez’s concession of a narrow defeat is reassuring, but his readiness to build an open and accountable society is still open to question. Russian "sovereign democracy" and Chávez’s "socialist democracy" need new transparency above all.
7.) Utopias live. Decades of neglect of Venezuela’s poor by ruling elites opened the way for Chávez’s “revolution,” with its promise of socialist cooperatives, improved health care and education, and “people’s power.” In some areas, like health and education, he has delivered. But ”El Comandante” has also tried to extend a controlled system for his greater glory. It benefits his crony capitalists in a make-believe economy of price controls, exchange-rate controls and unsustainable subsidies. When the crash comes, the poor will suffer and have no recourse. But the thirst for utopian illusion seems undimmed by 20th-century cataclysm, and the appetite for an anti-Bush is so voracious that the Chávez-as-Che concoction resonates, empty as it is.
8.) TV trumps all. In the bars of Caracas, people watch N.B.A. basketball and their beloved baseball. Johan Santana, the brilliant Venezuelan pitcher now apparently close to a move to the Yankees, is a national hero. At the U.S. embassy, visa applicants must wait until April for appointments. Flights to and from the United States are packed, malls full of U.S. brands. Consumers have ever more choices, politicians ever fewer. It’s unlikely even Chávez can turn back the clock far enough to change that.