The Left has already started the whitewashing of Hugo Chávez’s record, and I have no doubt that within days his image will adorn T-shirts the way the thuggish Che Guevara does.
Within minutes of the announcement of the strongman’s death, Ken Livingstone, London’s former mayor, tweeted the following:
K: Hugo Chavez showed there is an alternative to neo-liberalism and colonialism in Venezuela and worldwide. He was a friend & comrade #RIP— Ken Livingstone (@ken4london) March 5, 2013
As the London Times dryly noted: “There is a desperation on the Left for heroes who can reverse what seems like half a century of ideological defeat.”
One of the “hero” myths being created around Chávez is that he was elected democratically four times. Representative Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, eulogized him as someone who “understood democracy and basic humans desires for a dignified life.”
Simon Hooper wrote at CNN.com that the former leader of a failed 1992 military coup was “an unlikely convert to democracy.” But Chávez was a democrat the way that Mafia enforcers were policemen in neighborhoods they controlled. If you didn’t cooperate and pay tribute to them, you would regret it. He ruled through fear, intimidation, and subversion of the country’s institutions.
Some liberals have had the integrity not to become apologists for Chávez. Zach Beauchamp warned fellow Democrats in a ThinkProgress blog post not to eulogize a man who had a “record of harsh crackdowns on his political opponents and state-sanctioned persecution against Venezuela’s Jewish population.”
Human Rights Watch reported just last year that “the accumulation of power in the executive and the erosion of human rights protections have allowed the Chávez government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and civil society.” Although most Venezuelans accepted that he won more votes than his opponents in his reelection contests, he refused to allow international election monitors into the country after 2006.
The elections in which Chávez prevailed may have been largely free of fraud thanks to an extensive network of opposition observers stationed at each polling place. But they were hardly fair. He shut down private broadcasters who did not toe his line, and state-run media completely dominated the country’s political discourse. “I am a nation,” he would declare over and over in speeches that rivaled Fidel Castro’s in length and bombast.
While insisting that he would never restrict free speech or persecute his political opponents, he would routinely use trumped-up charges to jail them or drive them into exile.
Frida Ghitis, a columnist for the Miami Herald, concluded that he “manipulated the system to a degree that democracy started thinning to little more than a brittle veneer.”
Take the judiciary. Human Rights Watch observed that Chávez’s political henchmen created “a system in which the government had free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda, creating ever greater risks for judges, journalists and human rights activists.”
No one was safe if they dared cross Chávez. In 2009, judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni granted bail to a banker charged with breaking currency controls while he awaited trial. In his weekly television show, Chávez declared her a “bandit,” saying she “has to pay.” That woman has been imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges for over three years, during which time she claims she was raped.
Even worse, other Latin American leaders have taken lessons from Chávez’s playbook in how to destroy democracy. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega packed his country’s supreme court with stooges who promptly ruled that presidential term limits did not apply to Ortega. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, another Chavez acolyte, has similarly subverted his country’s constitution.
Merely allowing people to line up at polling stations every six years did not make Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela democratic. Nor will the snap election that must be called within 30 days to choose Chávez’s successor necessarily be free or fair. If Nicholas Maduro, the man Chávez hand-picked to take over after his death, wants to demonstrate Venezuela is running a legitimate election, let him first invite back the international election observers of whom Hugo Chávez was so frightened.