Chavez Wasn't Just a Zany Buffoon, He Was an Oppressive Autocrat

One irony of his rule is that it eventually curtailed freedom of speech much more among his supporters than his detractors.

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The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks during a rally in Maracay on July 1, 2012. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

If Hugo Chávez, who passed away today at 58, had one central skill, it was getting people to develop strong opinions about him. Chances are that you have one yourself. Passionate and charismatic, Chávez slipped comfortably into the role of romantic Latin American revolutionary, championing the poor against an unfeeling local oligarchy and its imperial paymasters. Reactions to this narrative arc are always visceral; ill-suited to nuance.

Lost in the parallel strains of adulation and disgust was an appreciation of the complexity of his rule. In fact, Venezuela under Chávez was a glorious contradiction -- an autocracy with a popular, elected megalomaniac at its center.

The Democracy ReportTo start to appreciate the dynamics of Chávez's power, you have to begin with his speeches: endless, vituperative, folksy, rambling and always, always unscripted, they electrified supporters, infuriated opponents and built over the years into a kind of corpus of law. They became the sources of ultimate power in the country, their authority far outranking -- in practice, if not in theory -- that of laws, regulations, even the constitution. Under Chávez, Venezuela became an Oral Republic, a place where an off-the-cuff remark could land you in jail, end your job, see your property seized, or, alternatively, set an orgy of petrodollar spending loose on your community.

The debate on whether this mode of governance could meaningfully be described as "democratic" has been hashed over again and again ad infinitum, both in Venezuela and abroad. The recitation of arguments on both sides long since went stale: yes, Chávez was beloved -- genuinely beloved -- of millions of poor Venezuelans, and won election after election for a decade and a half. And yes, having won all those elections he proceeded to act like an absolute monarch rather than an elected official, relishing every chance to showcase his contempt for the institutions of constitutional government, and gradually dismantling them in the process.

Both of these strains are true; there's no easy way to resolve the tension between them. Like an old-style dictator, he treated the state as his personal plaything but, unlike one, his power rested not on violence but on genuine popular affection. Venezuela's history since 1999 has been the story of that contradiction playing itself out across the lives of 29 million people.

Chávez's insistence on absolute submission from his supporters paved the way for the rise of an over-the-top cult of personality. As questioning any presidential directive was a sure career-ender for his followers, the upper reaches of his government came to be dominated by yes-men. Further down the food chain, too, extravagant displays of personal loyalty were required from every person in every nook and cranny of Venezuela's massive and fast-growing state apparatus, with state-owned factory workers required to attend rallies and clerical personnel fully expected to donate part of their salaries to the ruling party.

Instead of a police state, Chávez built a propaganda state, one that churned out slogan after slogan stressing the intense, personal, near-mystical bond between him and his followers.

"Chávez is the people." "We are all Chávez." These came to be shouted earnestly, with heartfelt passion by millions who felt empowered by his radical, redemptive rhetoric. We are well beyond run-of-the-mill pandering here and into a bizarre sphere of Freudian primary identification, where each of the president's followers was seduced into a sort of union with the leader.

It's doubtful whether any person could endure constant adulation on such a scale and escape with his grasp on reality unscathed, and Chávez clearly struggled on this score. He dabbled in trutherism and questioned whether NASA had really put a man on the moon. He speculated out loud about whether capitalism may have wiped out civilization on Mars, whether a secret U.S. weapon caused the earthquake in Haiti, and whether a secret might have poisoned Venezuela's independence war hero, Simón Bolívar -- rather than the tuberculosis diagnosed by his physician at the time. So enamored was he of this final bit of lunacy he actually ordered the Libertador's body exhumed for tests. When those tests came back showing no reason to believe Bolívar had been poisoned, Chávez nonetheless insisted that Bolívar had been murdered anyway.

It's easy to chuckle -- but try to imagine what would happen to your own psyche if no one ever questioned you to your face over 14 years. Wouldn't your grasp start to slip?

Finding no resistance, Chávez gave free rein to his creative streak. He changed the country's official name, shifted its time zone by half-an-hour on a whim and added an extra star to the flag. At one point, he ordered the National Coat of Arms changed on his then 9-year-old daughter's suggestion. When an opposition satirist responded by publishing an Open Letter to the First Daughter -- reasoning that if she was now making public policy, people had a right to address her -- Chávez had the paper that printed the letter fined for violating a child's privacy.

It was tempting to dismiss him as a Marxist of the Groucho school: Chávez never seemed especially self-aware about his tendency to stray into Duck Soup territory. It was at such times that his name tended to turn up in foreign media, atop made-to-go-viral stories that painted Chávez as a harmless buffoon. This image of El Comandante as a mere eccentric drove those of us who witnessed the progressive disintegration of Venezuela's democratic institutions around the bend. A rogue looks a lot less lovable when laughing at him can cost you your job, your property, your livelihood, your freedom.

In Venezuela, these outbreaks of weird had a different meaning: as visible displays of his untouchability. There's an ineffable creepiness to a society where the leader never pays a political price for what he says, no matter how plainly crazy or illegal it may be.

By all accounts, cabinet meetings were run along the same lines his legendary Sunday talk show, Aló, Presidente: improvised monologues with ministers furiously scribbling notes lest they forget the policies they would henceforth be expected to administer. Power here was spectacle, but it was more than spectacle -- it was also just power.

As time went on, the Hugo Chávez Show colonized more and more of Venezuela's airwaves. Given the explicit policy goal of achieving "Information and Communication Hegemony" over broadcasting, his National System of Public Media morphed into a multi-platform, multi-million dollar, 24-hour ego-gratification machine.

As dissident broadcast media were hounded off the air one by one, the Public Broadcasting behemoth gathered steam. On one state radio station after another, one TV channel after the next and hundreds upon hundreds of web sites and government-controlled "community radio" stations, the rhetorical tropes of chavista power are strung together in a kind of infernal loop with cherished catchphrases and attack lines recycled ad infinitum by a thousand taxpayer-funded talking heads, leader writers and 30-second propaganda spot directors feverishly mimicking Chávez's trademark hyper-vituperative style.

One counterintuitive aspect of this was that freedom of speech came to be much more strongly curtailed among the president's supporters than his detractors. Dissidents maintained certain spaces for independent thought in the newspapers, online and in a few, marginal broadcast media, but those who supported the revolution found themselves in a discursive straitjacket. While opposition media routinely blew the whistle on corrupt chavista officials, for anyone to do so on a public broadcaster risked seeing them tarred as counter-revolutionary fifth columnists and excommunicated from the Cult of Chávez, which meant losing the many perks that accrued to chavistas in good standing.

A long decade-and-a-half of these dynamics bequeathed us a grotesquely corrupted public sphere, where insult invariably trumps argument and easily-demonstrable lies are parroted again and again.

This debasement of the public sphere set the stage for the million insanities that came to pass for public policy making in the Chávez era: the gasoline given away almost for free by a government that loves to excorciate others' environmental records, the ruinous subsidy to importers and to Venezuelan tourists abroad implicit in the exchange control system ; the unblushing blacklisting of millions of dissidents; the manically self-destructive insistence of piling on tens of billions in unsustainable foreign debt at a time of historically very high oil prices; the nonchalant use of imprisonment without trial to cow dissidents and intimidate opponents; the secret spending of a hundred billion dollar slushfund beyond any form of scrutiny; the incessant repression of independent trade unionists; the botched nationalization and virtual destruction of industry after industry, from steel -- to electricity -- to cement -- to the agro-food sector -- the list goes on and on.

None of these policies is defensible, not even within the ideological confines of Bolivarian socialism. Some are plainly unconstitutional, others evidently regressive, still others are just mindlessly self-destructive.

The point, though, is that in the opinion climate that the chavista cult of personality created, policies didn't have to be defended. That Chávez supported them was enough to prove their righteousness, that his opponents questioned them enough to prove their wickedness. Chávez crafted a state where his will wasn't just unchecked, but where he would never suffer the indignity of having to account for his decisions.

Today millions of Venezuelans will weep tears of genuine anguish at his passing. Their sincerity should not be doubted. Chávez earned the heartfelt affection from a broad swathe of down-and-out Venezuelans with very real and very valid reasons to despise the creaking, corrupt two-party system he replaced. He hit a deep vein of gratitude, not only because a torrid oil boom allowed him to channel billions to his supporters, but because his rhetoric of radical empowerment made them feel valued in ways no other leader ever had before.

It's just that, over the past fourteen years, he exploited that vein ever more ruthlessly, strip-mining the people's affection for the gratification of a monstrously overgrown ego and dismantling the institutions of democratic life in the process.