Hugo Chávez Is Dead

I was not planning on saying anything about the death of Hugo Chávez, because I have nothing nice to say about him. But apparently a lot of other people do, and not just cult of personality followers in Venezuela. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, one José Serrano, actually praised Hugo Chávez as a good man and a good leader. And that sort of thing is something I do want to talk about. You have been warned.

Let me be clear. I did not like Hugo Chávez, because he was a socialist who believed he was going to solve his country’s problem by authoritarian control of almost everything. As best I understand it, Chávez’s policies made short term and largely cosmetic solutions for the Venezuela’s populace, which in the long term made more people dependent on the government, stifled almost all criticism of him and his government, consolidated power into a near dictatorship for himself, and led to massive increases in violent crime. Hugo Chávez was not a leader who deserved praise.

In addition, Hugo Chávez was apparently something of a conspiracy buffoon. The late Christopher Hitchens gave a first hand account of this in 2010.

In the fall of 2008, I went to Venezuela as a guest of Sean Penn’s, whose friendship with Chávez is warm. The third member of our party was the excellent historian Douglas Brinkley, and we spent some quality time flying around the country on Chávez’s presidential jet and bouncing with him from rally to rally at ground level, as well. The boss loves to talk and has clocked up speeches of Castro-like length. [Simón] Bolívar is the theme of which he never tires. His early uniformed movement of mutineers—which failed to bring off a military coup in 1992—was named for Bolívar. Turning belatedly but successfully to electoral politics, he called his followers the Bolivarian Movement. Since he became president, the country’s official name has been the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. (Chávez must sometimes wish that he had been born in Bolivia in the first place.) At Cabinet meetings, he has been known to leave an empty chair, in case the shade of Bolívar might choose to attend the otherwise rather Chávez-dominated proceedings.

It did not take long for this hero-obsession to disclose itself in bizarre forms. One evening, as we were jetting through the skies, Brinkley mildly asked whether Chávez’s large purchases of Russian warships might not be interpreted by Washington as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The boss’s response was impressively immediate. He did not know for sure, he said, but he very much hoped so. “The United States was born with an imperialist impulse. There has been a long confrontation between Monroe and Bolívar. … It is necessary that the Monroe Doctrine be broken.” As his tirade against evil America mounted, Penn broke in to say that surely Chávez would be happy to see the arrest of Osama Bin Laden.

I was hugely impressed by the way that the boss scorned this overture. He essentially doubted the existence of al-Qaida, let alone reports of its attacks on the enemy to the north. “I don’t know anything about Osama Bin Laden that doesn’t come to me through the filter of the West and its propaganda.” To this, Penn replied that surely Bin Laden had provided quite a number of his very own broadcasts and videos. I was again impressed by the way that Chávez rejected this proffered lucid-interval lifeline. All of this so-called evidence, too, was a mere product of imperialist television. After all, “there is film of the Americans landing on the moon,” he scoffed. “Does that mean the moon shot really happened? In the film, the Yanqui flag is flying straight out. So, is there wind on the moon?” As Chávez beamed with triumph at this logic, an awkwardness descended on my comrades, and on the conversation.

And yet, Sean Penn and Oliver Stone said these things:

“Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion,” says Penn in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.


“I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place,” says Stone in a statement to THR. “Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history.”

A friend and a hero and a champion. Pooh yi. Hugo Chávez was a socialist bully. Here is your so-called “champion of the poor”:

Hugo Chavez net worth: Hugo Chavez was a Venezuelan politician who had a net worth of $1 billion at the time of his death on March 5th 2013. A 2010 report from Criminal Justice International Associates (CJIA), a global risk assessment and threat mitigation firm estimated that the Chavez family assets totaled between $1 and $2 billion USD. The vast majority of these assets are oil related and were controlled by Hugo himself prior to his death. The head of the CJIA, Jerry Brewer, asserted that since Hugo’s rise to power in 1999, the extended family has amassed its fortune through both legal and illegal methods. Brewer further estimates that the Chavez family and hundreds of other criminal organization have “subtracted $100 billion out of the nearly $1 trillion in oil income made by PDVSA (Venezuela’s state controlled oil company), since 1999.”

In June, Humberto Prado Sifontes, Director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, was subjected to a campaign of intimidation and death threats after he called on the government to peacefully address a riot at El Rodeo Prison. Following accusations by government ministers and official media against him, a blog published his contact details with a note that said: “Family information to come soon… so that the people can try him. Capital punishment.” His wife received an anonymous call stating that he “would be the next one to fall”.


In July, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, member of an opposition party and a former governor of Zulia state, was convicted by a criminal court in Caracas of disseminating “false information” following his criticism of the government which was broadcast on Globovisión in March 2010. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment; the judge subsequently allowed him to serve his sentence on conditional release.


In February, Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, arbitrarily detained in December 2009 after granting conditional release to banker Eligio Cedeño, was put under house arrest. She had been held in prison for more than a year where she was threatened and denied adequate medical attention. Judge Afiuni refused to enter the court house in protest against violations of due process. Her house arrest was extended by two more years in December.


Violence against women remained pervasive. In spite of measures taken in recent years, the authorities had yet to issue an action plan to address violence against women or regulations on implementing the [Venezuelan] 2007 Organic law on the right of women to a life free of violence.

Hugo Chávez was a champion of something, but it was not the people.

Which brings me to the comments made by U.S. Congressman José Serrano. His comment on Twitter:

Hugo Chavez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor. He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President.

And then on the congressman’s official website:

“I met President Chavez in 2005 when he came to my district at my invitation,” said Congressman Serrano. “His focus on the issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised in his country made him a truly revolutionary leader in the history of Latin America. He understood that after 400 years on the outside of the established power structure looking in, it was time that the poor had a chance at seeing their problems and issues addressed. His core belief was in the dignity and common humanity of all people in Venezuela and in the world.


“President Chavez was a controversial leader. But at his core he was a man who came from very little and used his unique talents and gifts to try to lift up the people and the communities that reflected his impoverished roots. He believed that the government of the country should be used to empower the masses, not the few. He understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life. His legacy in his nation, and in the hemisphere, will be assured as the people he inspired continue to strive for a better life for the poor and downtrodden.”

What the frak?

I expect that kind of nonsense from European political leaders, but a member of the U.S. government should know better.

So far though, I think the most bizarre comment comes from Greg Grandin at The Nation:

Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.

Right. Chávez did all these things that seem bad, but his real problem was that he did not do enough of them. Not that Mr. Grandin sees it that way. If you read his article, he clearly paints Chávez as a man who was trying to help people and who was just misunderstood. The problem, Mr. Grandin seems to be saying is that Chávez simply did not acquire enough dictatorial power to do all the good things that Chávez wanted to do. In reply, I will point you, O reader, back to the Amnesty International report mentioned above. Not authoritarian enough? Mr. Grandin seems ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

Hugo Chávez was not a man who wanted to empower the people. His actions prove he was a man who wanted to control society. Contrary to what Congressman Sorrano said, the actions of Hugo Chávez prove that Chávez did not believe in the dignity and common humanity of all people. Rather, Chávez believed in the need to control other people and to remake society to agree with him in all things. In no way could that have ever led to elevating the dignity of the people of Venezuela, or South America or the Bronx or anywhere else. Making people dependent on handouts from the government diminishes people and makes them vassals whose lives are bounded by the whims of the lord that government becomes in that very much feudal arrangement.

In my personal opinion, Hugo Chávez was a socialist bully who tried to dress up his bullying as social justice. He was an immoral, selfish man who delighted in controlling other people’s lives for his own arrogant pleasure. He was a bad man, and I am (God forgive me) not sorry that he is dead.

My hope for the Venezuelan people is that now absent the would-be dictator who was Hugo Chávez, they will be able to have some much needed political debate in the public arena,  that much the policies of Chávez will be repealed, and that the Venezuelan people will start to achieve some genuine reforms that truly help them.

This post is now over 1900 words. Anything more I would say would no doubt seem entirely mean-spirited. (And yes, this is the nice version of what I want to say.)  So I will stop now.

2 Responses to “Hugo Chávez Is Dead”

  1. Exactly…

    I appreciate all of the references. Well written!


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