Dreaming of Hugo’s Nemesis

September 27, 2010

It’s extraordinary how passionate the media can become about democracy when the question of socialism is involved. Witness the Venezuela elections this week:

[Sky] “The election was seen as an indicator of the leader’s strength ahead of the presidential election in 2012 and the results will give Mr Chavez’s opponents belief his grip on power is loosening.”

[The Guardian] “Opponents of Hugo Chávez today made major gains in legislative elections that could weaken the president’s dominant power in Venezuela…the opposition overturned Chávez’s two-thirds majority in the national assembly, and claimed to have won most of the popular vote. If confirmed, the result would mark a milestone.”

[Reuters] “The result will, indeed, rejuvenate an opposition movement used to being defeated over and over again by Chavez…Opposition leaders have proved that unity pays and have reason to believe they now have a decent shot at winning the 2012 presidential election if they can unite behind a single candidate and produce a policy platform that goes beyond simply being anti-Chavez.”

But… “With the vast majority of votes from Sunday’s election counted, Chavez’s socialist party won at least 96 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition coalition won at least 61 seats” [AP].

Now I think that it’s lovely that the Venezuelan opposition has decided to play democracy again (it boycotted elections to the National Assembly in 2005), but I wouldn’t be so sure about the erosion of Chavez’ popularity come 2012. It’s clear that large sections of the English-language media want him gone, and despise him, but – like him or not – the Bolivarian Revolution has some mightily impressive accomplishments to its name. And via ALBA (the regional economic and political alliance that Chavez pioneered), Venezuela has been at the centre of attempts to isolate the coup-regime in Honduras, and has been fighting for democracy across the continent.

You don’t read this context too much in coverage of Venezuela. Journalists tend to view Chavez from the perspective of the wealthy, as a trouble-maker and a “populist,” but for millions of poor Latin Americans his boisterous nature and, more importantly, his actions, have been a source of inspiration. They see him as a human being, whose politics are rooted in communities like their own. He is a trouble-maker, but he is an idealistic campaigner and one of the more openly passionate politicians in the world. These are hard for the media to balance, and few ever bother. This reflects an all-too common cynicism which equates passion, humour and boisterousness with irrationality, incompetence and danger, which is sad to see, but that’s the way it is with Venezuela, and activist governments in general.

It’s good to see that Venezuelans have voted in large numbers for both opposition and government-backed candidates (though it’s a vast simplification to see all of those Socialist candidates elected as ciphers for Chavismo). But the common ground between America/Europe and Venezuela remains slender, and the polarisation of Venezuelan politics remains intense. Yet in our systems devoid of real choice (how sharp should the knife cut, not whether to stab us at all) we could certainly do with some polarising forces.

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