Political Animal


March 10, 2013 12:01 PM Chávez in Context

By Ryan Cooper

I was all set for a long post on Chávez and our dumb discussions thereof, but this Chris Hayes segment did it better:

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As Chris noted, it is obnoxious how the only authoritarians who get put into the evil dictator box are the anti-US ones, and as Matt Yglesias noted last week this is obviously driven by US pretensions to worldwide military hegemony.

To add a small point, it’s also striking how discussions of Chávez’s legacy get stripped of all historical context. Here’s Megan McArdle with a piece entitled “Why Chávez was bad for Venezuela.” And sure, probably Norway has done a better job of investing their oil wealth in the foundations of long-term prosperity.

And if we want an example of a leader of a poor country who actually managed proper investment of resource wealth the best by far is Botswana’s Seretse Khama.

But the place to start with Venezuela ought to be the fact it was part of the vicious, genocidal Spanish colonialism which poisoned the political atmosphere of the entire region. A second place might be the fact that discoveries of huge endowments of natural wealth in countries with weak institutions tend to lead to galloping corruption with most of the money skimmed by the elite. (This confluence of factors has nearly destroyed Nigeria, for example.) Any look at how Chávez fared ought to consider the yawning abyss of the alternatives.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Daniel Buck on March 10, 2013 1:59 PM:

    RC, you are correct that if Hugo Chavez had been pro-US, no administration, Republican or Democrat, would have much cared if he was an authoritarian, loud-mouthed megalomaniac.

    But it a little late in the game to blame head-case drama queens like Chavez on the Spanish colonial system, which ended almost two hundred years ago. Anyway, Chavez was elected, so blame the Venezuelan voters. Dan

  • Lance on March 10, 2013 2:10 PM:

    Reminds me of all the articles and histories that tell us how terrible Napoleon I was.

    Never stopping to compare him to say the situation in England, where begging was a capital crime and painting a halfpence silver to pass it off as a sixpence was too.

    Or America, where we still had the institution of slavery.

    And none of the continental powers outside his control were any better.

  • Rick B on March 10, 2013 3:08 PM:

    Chris Hayes made the (to my mind) very true statement that we Americans can easily name and demonize the vicious anti-American dictators around the world while at the same time being unable to even name the Prime Minister of Canada.

    Daniel, the Spaniards did not bring European wives with them. They instead married local women of high class and as a result created several hereditary classes of people. The Spaniards also were entirely military in focus (having just completed the 8 century reconquest of Spain before coming to America) so they brought no tradition of democracy or even local government. The social institutions that make modern governments work had no real history in nations which were really military encampments in conquered lands.

    If you really think this set up has not made modern governance difficult a mere two centuries after the revolutions kicking Spain out then you really need to read a bit more history and sociology.

  • Daniel Buck on March 10, 2013 3:38 PM:

    Rick B, I'm not saying the colonial system had no impact, but I think 200 years is enough time to get over most of it. Anyway, Chavez was elected, just like George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, Huey Long, George Wallace, Marion Barry, and any number of other chuckleheads in North America and Europe we'd care to mention.

    Second, Chavez is the exception, not the rule among Latin American elected leaders. Dan

  • Citizen Alan on March 10, 2013 3:57 PM:

    Nope. Sorry, but no. The town where I live does not sell liquor on Sundays, and there is not enough whiskey in the house to get me to read the opinions of Megan "Jane Galt" McArdle about Hugo Chavez.