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Thank you, my foolish friends in the West

The Sunday Times - Review

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is only the latest dictator-in-waiting to bask in adulation from western 'progressives', says Ian Buruma.

14.05.06 | When the Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas managed to escape to the US in 1980, after years of persecution by the Cuban government for being openly homosexual and a dissident, he said: “The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.”

One of the most vexing things for artists and intellectuals who live under the compulsion to applaud dictators is the spectacle of colleagues from more open societies applauding of their own free will. It adds a peculiarly nasty insult to injury.

Stalin was applauded by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Mao was visited by a constant stream of worshippers from the West, some of whose names can still produce winces of disgust in China. Castro has basked for years in the adulation of such literary stars as Jose Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even Pol Pot found favour among several well-known journalists and academics.

Last year a number of journalists, writers and showbiz figures, including Harold Pinter, Nadine Gordimer, Harry Belafonte and Tariq Ali, signed a letter claiming that in Cuba “there has not been a single case of disappearance, torture or extra-judicial execution since 1959 . . .”

Arenas was arrested in 1973 for “ideological deviation”. He was tortured and locked up in prison cells filled with floodwater and excrement, and threatened with death if he didn’t renounce his own writing. Imagine what it must be like to be treated like this and then read about your fellow writers in the West standing up for your oppressors.

None of this is news, and would hardly be worth dredging up if the same thing were not happening once more. Hugo Chavez, the elected strongman of Venezuela, is the latest object of adulation by western “progressives” who return from jaunts in Caracas with stars in their eyes.

Chavez is not yet a Castro, let alone a Pol Pot. His fiery populist rhetoric is more in the line of Juan Peron, the Argentinian “caudillo”. Chavez, by the way, rather relishes this pejorative term. Neither quite left, nor quite right, he is a typical macho Latin leader, whose charisma is meant to stand for the empowerment of his people, mostly poor and darker-skinned than the urban elite.

Unlike many traditional caudillos, but like Silvio Berlusconi (who cut his coat from the same cloth), Chavez was democratically elected, in 1998, after having tried and failed to take the more traditional strongman’s route to power, by armed force in 1992. Chavez is the Latin American version of a new type of authoritarianism (Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra is the Asian version), built on a mixture of showbusiness, intimidation, paranoia, huge wealth, and public handouts to the poor. The ideal is democracy by referendum, stripped of messy party politics or independent courts.

As Ali, the ubiquitous applauder of Third World blowhards, put it: “Democracy in Venezuela, under the banner of the Bolivarian revolutionaries, has broken through the corrupt two-party system favoured by the oligarchy and its friends in the West.” But whether the corrupt two-party system will be replaced by a functioning democracy is the question.

Ali was lavish in his praise of Venezuela’s new constitution, which allows people to recall the president before he has completed his term of office. “A triumph of the poor against the rich,” he called it. In 2004 Venezuelans exercised their right to do just that by circulating a petition for a referendum. Chavez survived, but soon the names of the petitioners were made public, and anti-Chavistas were denied passports, public welfare and government contracts.

In 2004 a law was passed that would ban broadcasting stations on the grounds of security and public order. Chavez, as well as his cabinet ministers, appears on television to denounce journalists who dare to criticise the revolution. Most ominous, though, is the way Chavez has expanded the 20-seat supreme court by adding 12 sympathetic judges.

Worse causes have been served by western enthusiasts than the Bolivarist revolution, and worse leaders have been applauded than Chavez. One only needs recall the abject audiences at the court of Saddam Hussein by George Galloway, among others, who flattered the murderous dictator while claiming to represent “the voice of the voiceless”. Even now, such publications as the New Left Review advocate support for a global anti-imperialist movement that would include North Korea, surely the most oppressive regime on earth.

The common element of radical Third Worldism is an obsession with American power, as though the US were so intrinsically evil that any enemy of the US must be our friend, from Mao to Kim Jong-il, from Fidel Castro to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And if our “friends” shower us with flattery, asking us to attend conferences and sit on advisory boards, so much the better.

Criticism of American policies and economic practices are necessary and often just, but why do leftists continue to discredit their critical stance by applauding strongmen who oppress and murder their own critics? Is it simply a reverse application of that famous American cold war dictum: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”? Or is it the fatal attraction to power often felt by writers and artists who feel marginal and impotent in capitalist democracies? The danger of Chavism is not a revival of communism, even though Castro is among its main boosters. Nor should anti-Americanism be our main concern. The US can take care of itself. What needs to be resisted, not just in Latin America, is the new form of populist authoritarianism.

That Chavez is applauded by many people, especially the poor, is not necessarily a sign of democracy; many revolutionary leaders are popular, at least in the beginning of their rule, before their promises have ended in misery and bloodshed.

The left has a proud tradition of defending political freedoms, at home and abroad. But this tradition is in danger of being lost when western intellectuals indulge in power worship. Applause for autocrats undermines the morale of people who insist on fighting for their freedoms Leftists were largely sympathetic, and rightly so, to critics of Berlusconi and Thaksin, even though neither was a dictator. Both did, of course, support American foreign policy. But when democracy is endangered, the left should be equally hard on rulers who oppose the US. Failure to do so encourages authoritarianism everywhere, including in the West itself, where the frivolous behaviour of a dogmatic left has already allowed neoconservatives to steal all the best lines.

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