‘In the ranking of dictators, Hugo Chávez is in the welterweight class’ this magazine said just a few weeks ago. Now the Venezuelan President has gone to that final meeting place of dictators great and small. And after the remnants of the international left have concluded their inevitable period of eulogy and mourning, it will be this magazine’s epitaph that will ring most true.
Chavez was not the worst dictator in history. At times he even carried off a good impersonation of a somewhat slow-learning democrat. But his instincts always remained what they first were: authoritarian. From first to last his grabs at power both at home and abroad were propelled not by a desire to persuade but by military coup, constitution-gerrymandering and classic demagoguery.
Despite the risible claims of his apologists across the West – keen as ever to support anybody who claims the mantle of anti-Westernism – Chavez had all the necessary hallmarks. His infamously haranguing and rambling multi-hour speeches were run compulsorily on all channels in Venezuela. His reaction to criticism – from political opponents or independent journalists – was more akin to that of his friends Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than any democratic leader. When the Catholic church in Venezuela criticised his authoritarianism and stamping out of the opposition Chavez turned his ire on the Catholic church. The just and fair society he pretended to be creating had the worst crime and murder rates in the world.
Chavez referred to his politics as ‘21st century socialism’. In the twilight years of Castro he hoped to inherit that man’s totemic and pointless anti-American mantle. It was not to be. And not just because Chavez has predeceased his friend, but because socialism continues to show itself just as incapable of bringing human happiness in the 21st century as it did in the blood-filled 20th.