January 5, 2001

The New Bolivar:
Hugo Chavez and the Rise of Pan-American Nationalism

As the US escalates the "drug war" in Colombia and the struggle begins to take on a regional character, an unlikely figure arises to challenge the American hegemon: Hugo Chavez Frias, the charismatic President of Venezuela who evokes the specter of Simon Bolivar, Latin America's great "Liberator," and speaks of a pan-American unity south of the Rio Grande. At a recent conference of the Andean Pact nations, Chavez declared:

"The 20th century was a bipolar century, but the 21st is not going to be unipolar. The 21st century should be multipolar, and we all ought to push for the development of such a world. So, long live a united Asia, a united Africa, a united Europe."


If this were some South American pipsqueak of a general – the ruler of, say, Ecuador, or some Central American banana republic – we might perhaps write this off as a typical manifestation of Latin grandiosity, which often mistakes the lyrical for the logical. But Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the US, and, besides that, has served as a model of relative stability in a tumultuous region: for 40 years, Venezuelan politics had been dominated by two major parties, in a system much like our own, with power regularly switching back and forth between the vaguely left-leaning Democratic Action party, and the more conservative Social Christian party (COPEI). But things were heading for a fall.


The system, although increasingly corrupt, muddled along up until the bottom dropped out of the oil market in the 1980s: the downturn plunged into a precipitous decline, culminating in a political and social crisis. Per capita income dropped, inflation took off, and, by the time Chavez came on the scene, capital was fleeing abroad at the rate of some $500 million every month. The government, the most free-spending in South America, was overwhelmed by a public foreign debt of $29 billion: today, the interest on this debt devours about 40 percent of Venezuela's income. The unemployment rate shot up, along with the crime rate: Caracas, never much of a tourist attraction, acquired a new seediness. Strikes paralyzed much of what remained of the economy, and basic services often came to a halt on account of frequent strikes.


The Venezuelan exceptionalism that exempted the nation from banana republicanism for some 40 years – largely the creation of oil wealth – looked about to unravel. At that juncture the country might have followed neighboring Colombia down the path of national dissolution. Like Colombia, which contains within its borders natural resources that ought to make it a wealthy nation, Venezuela has long suffered from what Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, calls the "reverse Midas syndrome." Everything the corruption-ridden governments of the region touch turns into the very opposite of gold – the vast oil wealth, and the natural talents and industry of the people, are somehow transmuted into growing poverty. In pre-Chavez Venezuela, the social democratic principles of the ruling elite had been translated into a spending program that might have been drafted by Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and the Democratic Socialists of America: As Naim points out:

"For more than 30 years Venezuela spent 10 to 14 percent of its total GDP on so-called social programs." In the public health sector, for example, Venezuela spent three times more per capita in 1985 than Chile, Jamaica, or Panama. But in 1988, Venezuela's infant mortality was 200 percent higher than Jamaica's, 80 percent higher than Chile's, and 30 percent higher than Panama's."


Naim also points out that Venezuela in the 1980s was the top spender on education in all of Latin America, but near the bottom in terms of illiteracy rates, dropout rates, and enrollment percentages. As the quality of life in Venezuela declined, so too the political system descended into gridlock – and degenerated into self-perpetuating claques of legislators steadfastly denying the growing crisis and concerned solely with the task of enriching themselves and their friends at the expense of ordinary people. Sound familiar?


Chavez, who by this time had spent a decade as an officer quietly spreading his own brand of nationalism – "Bolvarianism" – in the ranks of the military, had had enough, On February 4, 1992, he and his fellow Bolivarians struck: President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later impeached for various improprieties, barely escaped with his life, and 10,000 soldiers answered the call to rise up against the regime. After a bloody fight, the coup was quelled, and Chavez was arrested – but unbowed. The revolt failed, he publicly declared, because "the people weren't sufficiently prepared to be able to back us up." Chavez was carrying on a family tradition: his great-grandfather, the famous "Maisanta," led an uprising that put one El Presidente six feet under, and fought in another in which a tyrannical governor was put up against a wall and shot. Maisanta was eventually jailed in 1922, and spent the last 7 years of his life in prison, but his grandson managed to avoid this fate – and go on to become the democratically-elected President of Venezuela.


Venezuela, the South American showplace of Western-style bourgeois democracy, was coming apart at the seams and looking for a savior, and perhaps no man could have fit the bill quite as well as Chavez. After serving only two years, he came out of the clinker a national hero. Tall, handsome, and charismatic, the young army officer just out of jail was the subject of a popular film, Amanecer de golpe, the collaboration of left-activist Venezuelan director Carlos Azpúrua and the late screenwriter José Ignacio Cabrujas, famous for his soap-operatic touch. Chavez entered the 1998 elections and was ahead in all the polls from the very beginning. His promise to cleanse the nation of a corrupted and co-opted elite, his pledge to resist the depredations of globalization while keeping foreign investment on Venezuela's terms, his vision of a Venezuela where public officials could be instantly recalled by referendum and popular bodies could be empowered to repeal any legislation – the voters found all this irresistible, and as the candidate of his own Fifth Republic party Chavez swept into power with 56 percent of the vote. The two formerly "major" parties, openly supported by the Americans, polled 9 percent of the vote. Washington was stunned: they had bet on the wrong horse.


Chavez moved quickly to restructure the country according to the principles of "Bolivarianism" – which critics sneer is a "confused" and "jumbled" concoction of populist conceptions, generally vague and perhaps "anti-democratic." In reality, Chavez, contrary to his public image as an ordinary Indian from the hills with a healthy disdain for urban technocrats, is a man of ideas who seems to have thought long and hard about his political ideology. That Chavez doesn't fit into any of the formerly useful categories of "right" and "left" is the source of whatever confusion there is about what he believes, but this is due to the myopia of his critics, for the most part, and not – as we shall see – any fuzziness in his own thinking..


Those Republicans in Congress who believe that Clinton-Gore's "Plan Colombia" did not go far enough, and are chiefly interested in selling a lot of helicopters for their favorite military contractors, are now agitating for Chavez's scalp, and, in alliance with the editorial page of the New York Times, are raising the question of whether he might be another Fidel Castro, or perhaps the Saddam of South America. In an editorial on August 31, the Times denounced as "Jacobin" Chavez's efforts to reform the notoriously corrupt judiciary and rein in rampaging legislators. The Times wailed that the new constitution was "concentrating power in the presidency" and the State Department chimed in (or is it the other way around?), warning Venezuela to maintain "the separation of powers between the diverse branches of government." This from a nation where the President can deploy troops without consulting the legislative branch, and issue executive orders to carry out his will in virtually any matter! Oh, lecture us about the "separation of powers," Uncle Sam! Aren't you the country where the Supreme Court of a single rather cheesy state can hold the rest of the nation hostage? How do you say "give me a break" in Spanish?


The Republican policy wonks who believe that Chavez is a Fidelista retread, a mad leftist who would spread socialist subversion throughout the region and revive the Third International ignore the essentially rightist thrust of his politics. The New York Times, in its "new" reporting, has all but accused Chavez of being a fascist sympathetic to anti-Semitism, a latinized version of Austria's Haider. Both Left and Right miss the reality due to the distorting prism of their respective ideologies, which have long since ceased to have any real relevance in the age of globalization. Steve Ellner, author of three books on Venezuelan politics and history, and a professor of economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977, puts it this way:

"Chávez embraces a homegrown style of nationalism underpinned by Venezuelan heroes. His discourse resembles Sandinismo which also developed a national doctrine while breaking with imported models of Marxism-Leninism. Chávez berates historians for practically writing off the nation´s history between the death of Simón Bolívar in 1830 and the modern era, dismissing a whole century of political leaders as ¨caudillos," or strong-men. In a book of interviews with Chávez entitled The Commander Speaks, he states: ¨Caudillos may have been necessary for the incorporation of our people in historical struggles. I believe we have been sold an imported bourgeois democratic model – that of the elimination of our leaders."

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Past Columns

The New Bolivar: Hugo Chavez and the Rise of Pan-American Nationalism

No to the International Kangaroo Court

Know Thy Enemy

The Canonization of Colin Powell

Big Government Invades the Internet

The New Cold War: Who's Afraid of Vladimir Putin?

The Case for Pessimism

The Gore Coup: No Justice, No Peace – No Exit

Bush or Gore: Pick Your War

Gore, Bush, and the Imperial Style

Neo-Nazis and Neocons: An Unholy Alliance

Al Gore – The O.J. Simpson of American Politics

Coup d'Etat 2000 and the Madness of Al Gore

Slobo and Gore: Peas in a Pod

Gore Coup Radicalizes Republicans

The Dimple That Shook the World

Listen Soldier, You Can Stop the Gore Coup

Two Ways to Steal an Election

In Occupied America: Rage Against "The Regime"

Al Gore's Beer Hall Putsch

A Message to My Readers

The Real Victors: Nader & Buchanan

Buchanan's "Hail Mary" Pass May Work

Doubletalkin' Dubya: Bush Backtracks on Kosovo

The Nader Moment

The Smearing of Ralph Nader

Nader Sells Out

America's Fifth Column

Bush, the Balkans, and the Bipartisan "Division of Labor"

Hilary, the War Goddess

Vidal's Valediction: The Golden Age

Norman's Narcissim: Podhoretz in Love

The Middle East: War Without End

Classic Raimondo: Isolationism for Beginners

Notes on the Serbian Revolution and Other Matters

Revolt of the Little Guys

The Clinton-
Gore-Milosevic Connection

Szamuely's Folly: Sympathy for the Devil

Slobo's Gambit: Will It Work?

Adventures in Cyber-Politics, Revisited

Curtains for Milosevic

Dubya's Kosovo Deception

The Return of Pat Buchanan


The Vindication of Wen Ho Lee

Against the EU: Danes Resist Assimilation

UN Millennium Summit: Globalist Dream is Your Worst Nightmare

Iraq and the US – Our Fantasy Island Foreign Policy

Classic Raimondo: Allied Vultures Pick at Iraq's Bones

Colombia – The Deja Vu War

Passage to Cartagena: An Inauspicious Visit

Invasion of the Party-Snatchers

Blowback: Read This Book!

Bush on Kosovo – Turning on a Dime

The Kosovo Fraud: Will They Ever Admit It?

The Outing of Ralph Nader, and Other Atrocities

Why Kosovo? Follow the Money!

Additional Justin Raimondo Archives

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).



Chavez earned the wrath of the US by being the first head of state to visit Iraq since the Gulf war, and his visits to Cuba, where he and the old Stalinist warhorse got along famously, did not endear him to Republicans. But the idea that Chavez is sitting at Fidel's feet, imbibing Marxist-Leninist doctrine is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of hallucinating cold warriors who simply cannot believe in the death of their old adversary, Communism: they see its ghost everywhere, like the after-image of a lingering nightmare. What Chavez represents is something altogether new, at least in that part of the world, an ideology that is neither left nor right but firmly rooted in the concept of national sovereignty: a post-democratic nationalism, arisen largely in reaction to US economic and military domination of the region. But let Chavez speak for himself: there is not the space here to reproduce the entirety of the 1996 interview conducted in El Salvador, so I suggest you follow this link – and see if the following sounds like Fidelismo or even conventional caudillismo:

"The Bolivarian Movement was born in the barracks some 15 years ago when a group of soldiers came to the conclusion that the enemy was not communism, but imperialism. For many years we worked carefully and gradually to develop a nationalist, patriotic movement with one hand in the barracks and another on the street. We developed a Bolivarian conception of revolution, which understands that we face a different empire to that confronted by [the leader of the movement for independence from Spain, General Símon] Bolívar. Bolívar, however, did foresee that North America was destined to plague us in the name of liberty.

". . . We pose the questions of independence and sovereignty by calling for a new continent-wide independence movement. The current political model is mortally wounded and no viable alternative can exist without breaking the bourgeois, neoliberal system that has operated in Venezuela since 1945. In our model of democracy, the people, civil society, are protagonists who participate in making political, even military, decisions. There are no half-measures on questions of sovereignty. There has to be direct democracy, people's government with popular assemblies and congresses where the people retain the right to remove, nominate, sanction, and recall their elected delegates and representatives."


While he mentions Cuba admiringly as an example of "a people in arms," this formulation is ambiguous and, given Chavez's well-known ability to adapt to the expectations of his audience, doubtless thrown in for the delectation of enthralled left-wing journalists. For, aside from what they might view as an attractive appeal to egalitarianism, Chavez goes on to describe a vision very different from the usual left-socialist workers paradise, what he calls "a new continental alliance of defense and security and independence." This is what really puts a scare into the US State Department, whose bankrupt South American policy is coming back to haunt them:

"We know many currents within the defense forces of the continent, who, while not necessarily revolutionary, are at least nationalist. There is one question which unites military professionals from Mexico to Argentina, as reactionary as they may be. Every military graduate who loves their profession opposes the further reduction, let alone elimination of their national army. The United States would like to see all of our armies reduced to instruments solely to combat drug trafficking or, as has happened in Panama, converted into a mere police force."


This is no Commie: that is a patriot talking. Not only a patriot, but a military man who bitterly resented the prospective decline of his nation's army into a narcotics squad for their imperial overlords in Washington. When he assumed power, Chavez defied the US and refused to allow the US government to conduct their phony "war on drugs" on Venezuelan territory, and more: Chavez has militarized the border with Colombia precisely because of his neighbor's inability to control drug trafficking and guerrilla incursions into Venezuela.


When floods led to widespread devastation in his country, Chavez demurred when offered 1,000 American troops to "help out." One would have thought that this development – a refusal of foreign aid – would have been welcomed in budget-conscious Washington, where Republicans are always complaining about the burden of bailing out Third World countries. But instead Chavez was derided in Washington as arrogant and self-defeating: how dare those Venezuelans refuse our largess! In today's Spotlight, Scott B. MacDonald of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sneers: "We see evidence of the great U.S. conspiracy behind almost every event. Even the US offer to provide help during the 1999 mudslides and flooding is taken as something to which the great revolutionary helmsman must respond." Yet this gesture played well at home, where a people newly awakened to the meaning of national sovereignty were proud of the fact that they could make it on their own.


A specter is haunting South and Central America, and it isn't Communism – it's Bolivarianism. Let the Americans and their satraps listen, and tremble:

"It will be a challenge to create this continental military alliance and to start interchanges of technology and experiences at different levels of the military hierarchy. In Panama, for example, we know young army personnel, especially those who are now police officers, who are inspired by General Omar Torrijos. [Torrijos negotiated the treaty which binds the United States to return the Panama Canal.] They still consider themselves soldiers and are willing to fight for the reinstallation of Panama's own defense force. Recently, some retired colonels met with us and questioned the purpose of the anti-guerrilla war, which they had fought some 30 years ago in Venezuela. 'Who had been right?", they asked, "those who fought for the so-called democratic governments or the guerrillas who went to the mountains and raised the banner of communism?'"


The Bolivarian answer: neither. Both were caught in the cold war trap of looking for models abroad, either in the US or the Soviet bloc. Chavez is not nationalizing industry: he is privatizing, albeit without handing the country over to a board of directors located in New York or somewhere in Europe. Not a single member of the opposition has been jailed or harassed, and hanging chads do not seem to be a part of the Venezuelan electoral process, which has been deemed perfectly transparent and fair by international observers. The recent elections to the National Assembly returned followers of Chavez by a resounding 90 percent-plus. Chavez isn't dreaming about the dictatorship of the proletariat, in spite of the ultra-left sympathies of some of his followers: instead, he dreams of "a confederation of Latin American states for the new century," one "joining the Caribbean basin though railways and linking them with the great rivers such as the Orinoco, the Amazon and the Plata," which he calls "the arteries of our continent." Like Bolivar, he dreams of a sovereign, independent, and prosperous South America: to the US State Department, this is a crime. To the people of Venezuela, and beyond, it is an ambition that may be worth fighting for.


Chavez says that Castro told him, "There you call the struggle Bolvarianism, here we call it socialism." Chavez also reports Castro saying "something, which I never thought that I would hear from his lips, 'If you called your movement Christianity I would even be in agreement.'" Note that Castro is agreeing with Chavez, and not the other way around: this is the whole point, of course. Communism, which never really took root in South America, in spite of Che Guevara's best efforts, is dead in any event. But Bolivarianism? Venezuela has shown that it is very much alive, and the vitality of this new movement is summed up by what Chavez has to say to the decadent elites of North America and Europe:

"Our movement is gaining strength and very soon the world will know about the Venezuelan people. In Washington nobody mentions George Washington, in France no one talks of Napoleon, but in Venezuela the image of Bolívar is painted on the walls and his image is worn on the T-shirts on the chests of young people."


Nationalism – the great enemy of the cosmopolitan elite that stands, or thinks it stands, at the "end of history" – is on the march in every region of the world. The blowback from the policy of US hegemonism, with it's triumphalist proclamation of a "New World Order," is gathering momentum, from South America to East Asia, from the Middle East to the Balkans. In addition to Russia, China, and a growing pan-Slavic sentiment in Eastern Europe, opposition to US hegemonism is rising in the most unlikely places and coalescing in the most unexpected forms: the Arab resistance to American dominance is now linking up with the Bolivarians in South America via OPEC, which is these days headed up by a Venezuelan. Clinton was reportedly on the phone to Chavez recently, begging for a break on oil prices – to no avail.


It is yet another negative aspect of the Clinton foreign policy legacy that we have so alienated Chavez with "Plan Colombia" that Venezuela, once the major weak link in the OPEC cartel, is now the strongest advocate of keeping prices high. Before Venezuela's 1998 presidential election, the US State Department denied Chavez a visa to visit the United States on the grounds – according to Albright – that he had once been the leader of a coup, and therefore a criminal unworthy of entry. What Albright neglected to mention, as Steve Ellner points out, was that Chavez's chief rival, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, the number two man in the coup and now estranged from Chavez, was granted a visa: " In one respect," writes Ellner,

"US flexibility paid off as the more tractable Arias broke with Chávez and was his main rival in special elections held on July 30. During the campaign, Arias criticized Chávez's defiant attitude toward the US and his kind words for Cuba. The rejection of Chávez's visa request boomeranged. Just after the request was denied, Chávez's popularity soared."


When our own secretary of state preaches to American blacks that they must pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and praises the military as a character-building institution, this is hailed by everyone as the wisdom of the ages: but when a South American chief executive says the same thing, in the same tone – gee, they even look alike! – somehow this doesn't go over very well. The New York Times liberals discover that he is an incipient "fascist" and probably an anti-Semite; the conservatives uncover his Communist credentials. The reason for the confusion, and the angry denunciations, is because Chavez puts Venezuela first – not the "global community," or the transnational corporations, or the "New World Order," but the people and welfare of his own people. And that is a sin our ruling elite can neither understand nor forgive.

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