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This new American character…

5 March 2013

In explaining south of the Rio Bravo to those north of the Rio Grande, I often resort to inexact analogies… describing, for example, the Reforma era scientist, politician and theorist Melchor Ocampo as a Mexican Thomas Jefferson.  Thinking about Hugo Chavéz, many analogies to our own time come to mind… a Latin Nelson Mandela, a modern Benito Juarez , a male Eva Peron.  But for our friends north of the river, perhaps a better analogy might be to a controversial figure from U.S. history… Andrew Jackson.

The Jacksonian Era was nothing short of another American Revolution. By 1850, the “common man” demanded his place in politics, the office of the president was invigorated, and the frontier exerted its ever more powerful impact on the American scene. Hated by many, but loved by many more, Andrew Jackson embodied this new American character.

(The Age of Jackson, ushistory.org)

Of course, it’s not a perfect analogy… nothing ever is. But both Chavéz and Jackson were military officers turned politicians, products of their back country upbringing, and unrepentant populists who despised and did their best to destroy the entrenched economic elitists who controlled their nation’s economy. And both profoundly changed the not only their own countrymen and women’s perception of what it meant to be a citizen of their country, but the world’s perception of their nation, and its culture, as well.

The only period in U.S. history named for an individual is the “Jacksonian Era”… from the late 1820s to the mid 1850s… a period of unlimited expansionism, a sense of the United States as an ascendent power and a feeling commoners (at least white, male commoners) could hold their own against the bankers and the elites, and had the right — and opportunity — to better their lives. Of course, not all of that was quite true. Jackson pursued genocidal policies against the Native Americans, slavery was further entrenched in the economic system and women had no say in political or economic matters, and “bettering their lives” meant a chance to move west, stealing land from the Indians, buying slaves or grabbing large chunks of Mexico. Still, within the confines of early 19th century thought, this was an enormous human breakthrough… creating a radially different sort of culture — and one marveled at by even European aristocrats like Alexis de Tocqueville — than anything the world had seen before.

Jackson was derided in his own time as “King Andrew I”, and a “dictator” or “tyrant”, not for how he came to power, but for the fact that he was given power, and used it. The derision, along with stories of his own buffonery (including the popular claim that he was a functional illiterate) came not from those who normally suffer under a tyrant or a king, but from those who perhaps would prosper under a monarchy… those of inherited wealth, the old “Virginia Aristocracy” and the bankers. Chavéz, though popularly elected, was so often labeled a “dictator” in U.S. and other “first world” media that the term is just used without any consideration of its appopriateness. A correspondent of mine used the term “thug” today to describe Chavéz, but what “thuggishness” was referred to (perhaps fending off open insurgency financed by the former elites?) was never answered. Had Chavéz, like Jackson, engaged in genocide against native people (and he was a descendant of those people himself), or even jailed dissidents in any number (a few, mostly for normal criminal activity) perhaps the charges would have made some sense. But one realizes, that like the charges that Jackson was “King Andrew”, it was simply a case of class envy… the old elites whining that as they had done unto others, so was done unto them (although, it must be admitted, without the massive bloodshed of the previous Venezuelan governments, who had a nasty habit of killing protesters at the slightest pretext).

Hugo Chavéz perhaps had a harder path to the presidency, coming as he did from a much older society, with more entrenched social customs than the very young United States. As an Afro-Mestizo, he faced an unstated challenge to his presidency that the plantation owning Jackson never would have encountered. And, having as a teenager taken part in the War of Independence, Jackson — unlike Chavéz — had to face an elite who distrusted the economic superpower of the day (i.e., the British) and were predisposed to pursuing nationalist economic goals. Venezuela had been a in thrall to the the British, then of the United States for its entire history, and it was less a matter for Chavismo of weaning the elites from their dependence, as breaking either the elites dependence, or the elites. Or both, if necessary.

During the Jacksonian Era, he United States loomed large in the popular imagination as an alternative society, but was not a particularly major power in the world.  Chavista Venezuela, even with its outsized importance as an oil exporter, is not a major power though it has loomed large in the world’s imagination.  What is the crucial difference, and the one fact that guarantees Hugo Chavez a place in the pantheon of Latin American (and global) leaders was that his revolution… the Bolivarian Revolution… was not, like Jackson’s, merely a matter of one nation, at one time.

Of the various heroes (and heroine) mentioned above, only Nelson Mandela is comparable to Hugo Chavéz.  Ocampo, like Jackson, is a purely national figure.  montageJuarez broke the mold… proving that European extraction is not a requirement for greatness even in a nation of European-descended elites, and is honored throughout the Americas.  Eva Peron, although a controversial figure,  overcame the barriers to her gender and all-too-maculate background to create a symbol of womanhood recognized one way or another — and understood or misunderstood in different ways — world-wide.  With better communications in the late 20th century, Mandela’s amazing accomplishments have made him more than a South African, or even Pan-African figure.  He is a world-wide symbol of the power of the people to change meaning of their country and their culture.

Similarly, Chavéz’ “Bolivarianismo” — in changing the meaning of Bolivarianism from José Vasconcellos’ concept of a culture reveling in its Iberian, Roman Catholic roots to one rooted in the experiences of the multi-ethnic American hemisphere — has changed the way the peoples of Latin America view themselves.  Even should the government of the Bolivarian Republic be changed through subversion or force, that change is here to stay.

Coming as he did, like Juarez, Ocampo, Peron and Jackson, from the back of the beyond, and — like Juarez, Peron and Mandela — from the forgotten majority and only like Mandela, having captured the entire world’s attention as the head of a new and different form of understanding nationality, carved out of an entrenched, unfair and exploitative old one, breaking through neo-colonial forms and assumptions, did, indeed, change our world.

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. el_longhorn permalink
    9 March 2013 9:30 pm

    Nice to see MexFiles back!

    I have known a handful of Venezolanos, although the most I learned about Venezuela was when I handled an asylum case for a client from there. I learned a lot from her and learned a lot from the research I had to do for the case. Never been there.

    No question that Chavez increased social spending for the poor. He built the Misiones and they sold subsidized food to the poor, which was very popular and very helpful. He increased health care spending, building clinics and staffing them with Cuban doctors. For these reasons (and others) he was very popular among the poor that benefited from these services.

    However, he took government money that was going to oil production and diverted it to social spending. The result has been lower oil production and decreasing oil revenues. The only reason the plan was not a total disaster was that oil prices have been high enough to hide most of the revenue loss. Not all but most. If oil prices do fall back down, Venezuela is going to have a severe and difficult economic crisis. And oil production continues to decline. His lack of investment in public infrastructure outside of popular social service programs is a serious problem. And the Venezuelan economy is basically a disaster. High inflation, high crime, high unemployment, shortages of electricity and vehicles.

    His political legacy is equally questionable. No one gives a damn about Chavez outside of Venezuela and Cuba. South Americans from other countries that I know are basically indifferent to him. And pretty close to half of Venezuela hates him. The people that like him have developed this weird cult of personality around him. It reminds me of North Korea. Whatever his accomplishments politically (no question he had great political talent), I don’t see a philosphy or model that can be replicated or is even coherent. And not one that will survive long after his death.

    The best thing Chavez could have done for his legacy is die. That way when the shit hits the fan and the Venezuelan economy basically collapses, the Chavistas can blame that on his successor and talk about how wonderful things would be if El Comandante was still alive.

  2. el_longhorn permalink
    9 March 2013 9:33 pm

    By the way, this is an excellent article on Correa in Ecuador, who seems to be quietly doing a much better job than Chavez did.

    http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2013/02/correas-and-ecuadors-success-drive-the-economist-nuts.html

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