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Smells Like Sulfur
Hugo Chávez, Thug

He champions himself

It’s been the on-again, off-again fashion among leftist intellectuals to embrace, sometimes too fervently and always in the name of some form of idealism or another, the scum of the earth: The French and American left wrapping its tendrils around Stalinism in the 1930s, the French left’s lingering infatuation with communism in the 1960s (helped in good part by Sartre’s ideological Viagra), the American left’s weird attraction to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in the 1980s (not that the Somozans and contras were any better), and now, the American left’s flirty, facile embrace of the latest of Latin America’s caudillos, the always entertaining, occasionally accurate, but also unquestionably thuggish Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

This isn’t to say that the European and especially American right hasn’t far exceeded in nauseating embraces every other reactionary brute that walked the earth. But two brutes don’t make a saint. No need to dispute Chavez's populism. Populism is easy when you’re rich. Oil at $70 a barrel can make even Saudi Arabians look magnanimous. So imagine what it can do for a Latin American despot cut of the same cloth (if differently hued) as Stroessner, Pinochet, Castro, the two Somozas, Duvalier, Cordova, Trujillo.

Nothing wrong with a good anti-imperialist. But that’s not what Chavez is. He’s a thug in anti-American clothing, banging the drums of his Bolivarian revolution while tightening every screw he can on the things you revolt for: freedom from thuggery, and freedom to think and be as you please. Chavez cannot survive in an open democracy. Screws are his Praetorian guards. When he’s not forcing television stations to carry his propaganda (a Latin American and Venezuelan custom for whoever is in power), he’s shutting them down, as he did in May, when he shut down the nation’s most-watched network, saying it’d been involved in the 2002 coup that tried to oust him. Whether the station was involved or not, and there’s little doubt that it was, so what? That’s democracy. Shutting it down is tyranny. But Chavez is into tyranny. His National Assembly gave him a Patriot Act of sorts last January, granting him powers by decree over a range of issues.

And now this, from the Guardian: “President Hugo Chávez has announced that foreigners who visit Venezuela and criticise his government will be escorted to the airport and expelled. In a televised address, the Venezuelan leader ordered cabinet ministers to monitor statements by international visitors and to deport them if they "denigrated" his leadership. "How long are we going to allow a person - from any country in the world - to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?"”

Clever of jowly Chavez to couch his dictatorial decree in an anti-dictatorial glow. This is Venezuela’s Sedition Act, almost word for word. Chavez must’ve been reading his John Adams. How long before America’s left, of which I’m usually a proud and willing participant, stoops and slouches in defense of Chavez once again playing Tony Soprano? Too bad for Chavez: The man has good ideas, good initiatives, great heart for the poor and disadvantaged, great energy. But idealism doesn’t justify repression. Idealism doesn’t justify cracking knee caps and skulls in the name of some illusory revolutionary purity. If Chavez’s programs are such great shakes, they ought to stand on their own. Nothing, least of all foreign dissidents or even the Bush administration’s own sulfurous coup attempt, could do him any harm.

Oh, and by the way, Chavez’s latest edict comes “on the eve of the publication of a draft constitution that will propose abolishing presidential term limits, allowing the socialist leader to stand again when his current term ends in 2012.” Castro can die in peace by then: he’ll know his legacy of lurid longevity secured by his Venezuelan heir.

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