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That “New American Character”

10 March 2013

“El_Longhorn”, who often respectfully (and perceptively) disagrees with MexFiles, commented on my post “This New American Character” (in which I sort of tried to place Hugo Chavez in the tradition of various nationalist leaders in the “emerging world”, starting with Andrew Jackson). Two good points he makes, that perhaps need to be discussed further:

[Chávez] 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.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with shifting oil production money to social spending. There’s no rule that says income generated from any particular resource must be reallocated to further use of that resource… and, when it’s a non-renewable resource (like petroleum), perhaps it is better spent elsewhere. Norway spends theirs on social spending, and Alaska goes beyond rhetorical socialism, doling out the oil industry revenue directly to its citizens.

While high crime is something one expects in a country undergoing rapid social change (and the crime rate is not out of line, and somewhat lower, than other Caribbean countries), high inflation and shortages of electricity and vehicles are usually seen when consumer demand outstrips supply. In other words, the downside of rapid growth and increasing wealth. More people can afford vehicles and are using electrical appliances, which should, in time, bring down the unemployment rate. And, the answer to high unemployment is … social spending: education for changing job requirements, like working in the automotive and electrical fields.

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.

Pretty close to half of Mexicans (if not more) despised Calderón and now despise Enrique Peña Nieto, and… from what I gather from U.S. media, Barack Obama is not universally loved, either. The fact that Chavéz’ passing has led to so much press and that we are even discussing it here, shows that his influence is felt throughout the world, and his career was not seen as indifferent outside of Cuba and Venezuela. I’m doubtful the average Englishman or Frenchwoman in 1838 could tell you who Andrew Jackson was, but they had heard of the United States and probably had an opinion about it. Today, though, if your average USAnian or Russian or Palestinian has heard of Venezuela, he or she probably has heard of Hugo Chávez.

Even so, your average Englishman or Frenchwoman or USAnian or Russian or Palestinian or South American… most likely is interested first in tending his own garden, and doesn’t care all that much about the niceties of foreign affairs. But, then again, your average person is not running a country or large chunks of the planet… and the people that do, and those of us who comment on those people, have paid attention to Hugo Chávez.

I donno, but riding around with a giant mouse is kinda weird

I donno, but riding around with a giant mouse is kinda weird

I don’t know what El_Longhorn means by a “weird cult of personality”. Or, at least, it was no weirder than the adulation surrounding Ronald Reagan — another deft politician sometimes given to completely daft remarks. Where El_Longhorn sees “North Korea”, I think he’s talking about those media presentations of mass rallies. And, as El_Longhorn knows, color-coordinated campaigns and free tee-shirts are a staple of Latin American political events. Think of those “million people marches” Televisa endlessly promoted where one was expected to wear white. These aren’t at all new… Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, set in the 1950s, featured a rally of red-shirted (reactionary) mobs in Paraguay.

Coherent political philosophy? I’ve said Europeans write mission statements before their revolutions, and Latin Americans write them afterwards. I don’t think Bolivarianism is so much a single philosophy, any more than Álvaro Obregón (a figure much like Chávez, but now unrecognized outside of Mexico) did in synthesizing a social and political system that brought together nationalists, capitalists, socialists, anarchists and intellectuals. For that matter, how coherent was Benito Mussolini, or Mao Zedong, or even the Republican Party in the United States? It seems that the ideology grows out of pragmatic decisions that not only reflect the individual leader, but also their advisers, changing conditions, and the need to gain popular support.

Whether Hugo Chávez’ personal vision of Bolivarianism can be replicated, I don’t know. I don’t know if it has to be. That CELAC exists, and that there is popular resistance to U.S. intervention in Latin America (and that there are elites now supporting such resistance) and that there is a consensus that governments should invest in social spending rather than relying on “trickle down” show a huge change in the psychology of the way the Americas look at their own countries and how they react to the world. Chávez no more created that than Andrew Jackson created the “era of good feeling”… but as the figure we associate with this new sensibility in Latin America, Hugo Chávez IS a seminal figure and will remain one in our historical analysis of the early 21st century.

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