Readers Write: Who Is the Real Hugo Chavez?

AlterNet published two articles about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez this week that fostered a lot of discussion in the comments sections, on our own blogs, and off-site in discussion forums elsewhere on the internet.

The first article, a piece by Javier Corrales from Foreign Policy, titled "A Modern-Day Tyrant?" drew the most criticism of the two. Perhaps the most contentious claim in Corrales' article was that since he's come into power, "Chávez has failed to improve any meaningful measure of poverty, education, or equity. More damning for the Chávez-as-Robin Hood theory, the poor do not support him en masse."

AlterNet staff writer Josh Holland took this claim and others in the article to task in a blog post, citing his previous work debunking the foreign policy establishment in D.C.'s claims about Chávez:

In 1997, the year before Chávez's election, 55.6 percent of Venezuelan households and almost 61 percent of Venezuelan citizens lived beneath the poverty line. At the end of last year, those numbers were down to 37.9 and 43.7 percent, respectively. That's a major improvement ... This, however, does not really capture the changes in the living standards of the poor in Venezuela, since there have been major changes in non-cash benefits and services in the last few years.
And Holland swatted Corrales' attempt to claim that the poor dislike Chávez:
Professor Corrales goes on to say: "More damning for the Chávez-as-Robin Hood theory, the poor do not support him en masse. Most polls reveal that at least 30 percent of the poor, sometimes even more, disapprove of Chávez." Which is also to say that 70 percent of the poor majority do approve of Chávez. That makes sense given that he won 59 percent of the vote in the recall election.
Commenter Thought Criminal added that the author Javier Corrales "was a consultant to the World Bank with a special interest in 'education reform' which looks to be 'education privatization' or rather, IMF-style 'austerity measures' aimed at enforcing debt repayment at the expense of the country's social improvement programs -- and then only the privileged few get an education, and the country stagnates. (kimaszi gave a link to Corrales' resume) His job appears to be providing intellectual justification for the economic hitmen who work for the IMF-World Bank-Import/Export crowd -- basically, it's the Tonya Harding model of economic competition in action." Thought Criminal linked to an article from the Center for Economic and Policy Research to debunk many of the claims in the piece.

Commenter Vani offered a fairly extreme explanation for why AlterNet published the Corrales article -- that it has been taken over by the CIA, or perhaps Israel's Mossad:
Although there might very well be some, even many, sincere people behind AlerNet, the management must be in the hands of some right-wing, conservative organization that is trying to derail the Left. Possibly it has been infiltrated by the CIA or Mossad. In any case, there is no way that a truly liberal news source would have published an article attacking Chavez. Any Leftie with half a brain knows that Chávez is an enormous advance over who normally leads in Latin America.
Occasional AlterNet author Jules Siegel sent an e-mail asking for an answer to a comment written by Mycos, a subscriber to, who also wondered why the piece was republished here:

"Somehow this totally bizarre article made it onto the pages of Alternet. Nobody can believe what they are seeing. It's ... well, it's simply a bizarre attempt at being critical of Chavez, and makes me wonder if there isn't more to the story of its appearance over there."

To which I can say, authoritatively, Nah! AlterNet hasn't been taken over by anything other than the desire to run a mix of articles with a blend of perspectives. Note that very recently, AlterNet ran another piece from Foreign Policyarguing that the NRA was taking its gun advocacy to the whole planet -- not a piece of gun industry PR by any standard. It sure looks like some of Corrales' claims were inaccurate, and his biases fairly easy to discern. However, the piece had a lot of material about what Chávez has done to consolidate power, which went unchallenged. Points such as "His 1999 constitution did away with congressional oversight of military affairs, a change that allowed him to purge disloyal generals and promote friendly ones" are worthy of consideration, even if you like the man.

mwildfire caught our drift, and wrote:
First off, the fact that Bush has done everything the author accuses Chávez of doing doesn't make it right.
Second, thanks to the person who posted the info on where the author is coming from: I suspected as much. Interesting that he is a prof at Amherst, a very liberal arts college. Likely they keep his likes around for the same reason AlterNet posted this thing, along with Palast's piece: They believe in variety, in giving the opposition a voice occasionally.
At least, that's the optimistic slant. Considering that the media in both the U.S. and Venezuela is overwhelmingly in rich, conservative hands, vociferously vilifying Chávez -- I'm not sure Alternet really needs to provide this sort of "balance."
camaron cited Foreign Policy's corporate partners as evidence of its true motives: "Asian Development Bank, BG, BP, Corporación Andina de Fomento, Deutsche Bank, Emerging Markets Management, LLC, Inter-American Development Bank, JP Morgan, Noble Energy, Strategic Investment Group, Procter & Gamble." And then camaron asked, "Could the solid Venezuelan policies for an "alternative" social oriented economy be worrying them somewhat ...? Could Chavez' socialist and anti-imperialist project be scaring them to a certain point ...? Could this fact, by any, any chance, have some impact on the infantilistic analysis of Mr. Javier Corrales on Venezuela's political process ...?" The response to that is, take it up with them. Again, see the article FP ran on the NRA and consider whether the reality is as black as white as camaron wants it to be.

While many readers didn't feel that the companion article to the Corrales' piece, Greg Palast's in-person interview with Chávez from The Progressive, "balanced" the coverage, the piece prompted a lot of discussion as well.

Thought criminal jumped from Chavez's statements on oil prices to raise the question, "Why not just stop importing oil, period?":
Truth be told, I'd rather the U.S. didn't import any oil whatsoever -- that we developed an independent energy system that shut out all the oil importers from the Saudi princes to the Nigerian military governors to, yes, even Hugo Chavez. They'd do okay -- and we need to slow the rate of global warming, as well as build a good domestic energy infrastructure based on long-term renewables like solar, wind and biofuels.
Isn't this a great idea? I'm sure all you loyal Republican patriots will get behind this 100 percent -- why should we give our hard-earned U.S. dollars to foreign tyrants? Let's roll with renewables! On the other hand, there was a great post by Horace G. earlier about the Republican 101st keyboard division -- maybe it is time to go to Iraq and put your life where your mouth is.
Iconoclast421 replied tartly, "We'd have total chaos and civil war within two weeks if we stopped importing oil." And ConnecttheDots responded, "Imagination and innovation are key components of any strategy aimed at achieving energy independence, preserving the environment, and developing a sustainable economy and culture. Tesla Motors, in partnership with Lotus Engineering, seems to be leading the way on the personal transportation front. Check out the Tesla automobile and free yourself from Venezuelan and Saudi oil as early as next year."

Marklar's reaction to Palast's interview was to compare the Venezuelan president to FDR:
... I could only dream that a person like Hugo Chávez rises in our nation, someone who would have used his presidential helicopter to rescue people stranded on a roof in New Orleans rather than deny the whole event existed. What a sad time we live in.
coldeye was less awestruck by Chávez:
The cheap oil deliveries are obvious propaganda. Chávez has the same morals as most OPEC leaders: Charge the most for a product that is in short supply. That is monopoly capitalism, plain and simple. Chávez is not "immoral" as Western society uses the word. But his socialist sympathizers are pathetic fools; like the dupes who adored Stalin. They see what they choose to see.
Will the U.S. decline as an empire? Of course. All empires do. The cost of empire and the rise of other more vigorous nations is a symptom of the species evolution of modern man since 5,000 B.C. Until the next Ice Age at least, and barring nuclear holocaust, the ups and downs of empires will occur.
Hugo Chávez is an ordinary ruler. He does nothing extraordinary. Like some other authoritarian types, he is a megalomaniac. But he is ordinary. Unimaginative. He is no Lenin, Napoleon, Trotsky or Hitler. He is just another caudillo with a private jet. His trip to Belarus and its moth-eaten survivor of the fossilized Soviet system demonstrated how pathetic he is. His trip to the clerical fascists of Tehran show his lack of conviction. He is anti-U.S., but most of the consumer trinkets his people will buy with the few oil shekels he'll pass out to the masses will go to China and Korea, because that's where consumer goods will go. But no competitive economy is ever allowed by this Peronista-wanna be. And that's where the cronyism and corruption begins, and the discontent ends, like in Argentina, Panama and all the other watered-down versions of Mussolini's Italy.
His building alliances with foul dinosaurs like Castro and Belarus reminds one of Mussolini and Gaddafi's need to seek out the scum of the earth and wave to their captive masses. Nothing new here.
Hugo Chávez is not a keeper. No one will remember him in a few years outside Venzuela. It's all about Hugo. There isn't a dime's worth of difference between him and the Saudi sheiks, except that they hang with more interesting people when they travel abroad.
Iconoclast retorted:
I can't believe you'd actually say there isn't a dime's worth of difference between him and the Saudi sheiks. What a way to ruin your own credibility. The Saudi sheiks are usually owned by people like the Bushies. They do what they're told, hence their evil repressive regimes never make the nightly news.
Of course Chávez is not the model of democracy and the left should not condone his actions out of spite for Bush. People like Chávez end up being used by the reichwing media for decades as an example of how dangerous those "commies," "leftists," "liberals" and "socialists" really are. And that allows scum like Limbaugh and Hannity to dominate the airwaves and continue destroying the minds of millions.
Look for more articles -- and reader discussion -- on AlterNet about Chávez in the coming months; the Venezuelan president is never too far from the headlines.

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