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.