In the ranking of dictators, Hugo Chávez is in the welterweight class. President of Venezuela these past 14 years, he is supposed to be holding a ceremony of inauguration for yet another term of one-man rule and demagoguery. In anticipation, his supporters, the Chávistas in their uniform of red shirts, are singing and dancing in the streets of Caracas. But rumour has it that Chávez is on the point of death after surgery for cancer in a hospital in Cuba. Caution! The apparent popularity, the sympathy, the tenterhooks, the pseudo-Mandela image of the man, is largely the work of those strange modern-age political publicists known as fellow travellers.
A fellow traveller is one who commits to a cause, preferably foreign and necessarily hostile to the interests of his own country. He, or as often she, believes that the selected cause is promoting the virtues of Peace, Love and Brotherhood, in contrast to the vices of the home country, its government, its injustices, racism, imperialism or whatever. In most of the world, a dissenting attitude of that kind puts the individual’s liberty and life at risk. In the West, the fellow traveller is free to praise what ought to be blamed and blame what ought to be praised, and be rewarded for this with money and a reputation for courage. By means of false moral equivalents, double standards and the assertion that whatever wrongs ‘they’ are guilty of ‘we’ have done worse, anyone can become a celebrity fellow traveller. The Soviet Union of H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley and tens of thousands less intellectual than them was an illusion, a bold manipulation of public opinion. The moment reality became unmistakable, all that remained of that intense fellow-travelling was the feeling of having been deceived. Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s eulogistic Soviet Communism is probably the most misleading book in the English language, yet they are both buried among the famous and respected dead in Westminster Abbey.
Hugo Chávez attracted fellow travellers for the good old reason that he has been the leading spirit in assembling the grand anti-American coalition comprising Cuba, some Latin American states, Russia, Iran and its sidekick Syria, with Zimbabwe thrown in. Originally an army officer, he has had no objection to strong-arm methods such as staging a coup and laying hands on Venezuelan oil. Inclined to Marxism-Leninism rather than capitalism, he changed the constitution so that he could rule by decree; expropriated foreign and domestic companies worth billions of dollars; seized land, and shut down television and radio stations. In front of the press, he humiliated President Obama with the gift of a book claiming that North America has been pillaging South America for five centuries. Needless to say, over that extended period many a South American caudillo has been pillaging his own country just like Chávez without any Yankee participation.
One long-standing beneficiary of fellow-travelling is Fidel Castro. The likes of Herbert Matthews of the New York Times and C. Wright Mills, a Princeton sociologist and author of the polemic Listen,Yankee, were quick to describe communist Cuba as a utopia that it was immoral as well as dangerous to oppose. They and many others wrote Castro up as progressive, screening the methodical brutality with which he has imprisoned and executed dissidents; to that extent they are invited to be accessories to crime. Less murderous, Chávez is nonetheless Castro’s great friend, almost heir apparent. Recently the American Spectator noted that Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon had redirected fellow-travelling to Chávez’s Venezuela, ‘caught in a time-warp… spouting foolish Marxist rhetoric to justify the buffoonish behaviour of their hero’. Capturing the undertow of worship, the fashion model Naomi Campbell called him ‘a rebel angel’.
A couple of years ago, Oliver Stone made a pro-Chávez film, South of the Border. ‘I admire Hugo,’ Stone declared. ‘The pure energy of the man is intoxicating.’ Such condescension modernises the 18th-century myth of the Noble Savage. ‘I know President Chávez well,’ claimed an equally condescending Sean Penn, the actor. ‘He is a warm and friendly man with a robust sense of humour.’ After a sponsored trip by car around Venezuela with Chávez, Penn posted on the internet a diary of thousands of words recounting in soapy detail their time together. ‘El Presidente is really human, like a brother.’ ¡Mi Hermano! Without embarrassment Penn could boast, ‘Just Hugo and me in a convoy of black vehicles.’ And in the course of the drive the wonderstruck Penn caught sight through the car windows of poor people standing by the roadside and weeping with love.
Owen Jones in the Independent a few weeks ago published a little masterpiece of false equivalence and double standards under the heading, ‘Hugo Chávez proves you can lead a progressive, popular government that says no to neoliberalism.’ In a tone of weary superiority, he compares Chávez to his ‘Pinochet-style’ opponents, says this is a funny sort of ‘dictatorship’ (his scare quotes), and makes it plain that neoliberalism — whatever that might be — has had it coming for ages. The paper has also run an article by Johann Hari promoting Chávez, but the less said about a journalist so surprised to discover what plagiarism is, the better.
The motivations of these fellow travellers vary. Delight in associating with a star of the anti-American crowd is clearly simple snobbery. The narcissism with which someone like Penn preens himself as though on the world’s widest stage is also clear. Posturing and self-promotion is good for business, and agents have to be kept up to the mark. Like their predecessors, this new generation of fellow travellers spin illusion and misrepresent reality. I may be wrong, but I detect the deep and secret pull of power. Whatever their differences of character, these people aspire to be on the side of a strong man who dares to do what they would like to do but haven’t the courage. Like Cubans in the recent past, huge -numbers of Venezuelans haven’t waited to test the Chávista limits but have fled the country. About half of those who remain do not wear a red shirt and very much hope that it will not be long before Chávez and his claque are no longer able to do them further injuries.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013