The fact that Hugo Chavez has been so front-line and center lately, and the particularly strong emotions his condition has elicited has made me think about him and some of the reasons why many anticipate his death so joyously (even if quietly). I think the answer has more profound roots than the horrifying conditions faced by many Venezuelans. These are not to be minimized. Inflation that hovers over 25%, the 201st worst public debt in the world, three devaluations since 2002, and most troubling of all the fifth worse homicide rate in the world, according to the U.N. Office of Drug and Crime. These are reasons enough to want him out of power, however they do not explain the visceral reactions to his ailment.
Mr. Chavez is the product of a non-dictatorial, yet massively clientelist and corrupt two-party system. After a failed coup d’état in 1992, Mr. Chavez regrouped and launched a political movement. Promising change he got to power through democratic means in 1998, as the old order was already crumbling. This is all unremarkable in the spectrum of Latin American politics. What I think makes Chavez “special” is that he represents a modern type of autocrat. He is the autocrat that has used democratic means to dismantle democracy itself; that used democracy against itself. He has remained in power through the popular vote, has patiently campaigned for candidates (and pushed for reforms) that enabled him to align all branches of government to himself, has used the legislative branch creatively to eliminate dissident voices, and most shockingly has changed the constitution to allow for perennial reelection. He has achieved all of this relatively peacefully and through legitimate means. Legitimate means however, are not necessarily just.
Many have been blinded into believing that the popular vote is all that is required to have a democracy. Yet democracy is much richer than that. Democracy requires justice, openness and discourse. It is not enough to say it is what the people want. We have systems in place to protect ourselves from ourselves. Democracy consists of a series of guiding principles that, as John Rawls put it, all reasonable free and equal people must agree upon. These guiding principles should direct policy. Even if a majority of people were to want a law that went against these principles, to enact such a law would be anti-democratic. An example of a guiding principle, is freedom of speech, even if most people were to want only 2 news sources, any policy that aimed to circumscribe news outlets to 2 would be anti-democratic. Another is limited terms, even if most people wanted Chavez to be president forever, any policy that sought to have that occur would be anti-democratic. Chavez has used his presidency and the confusion between public support and democracy to chip away at the social institutions that make a democracy legitimate.
One of Mr. Chavez’s most anti-democratic, and heinous traits, is his capacity to dismiss dissidence. He writes off his rivals as peons of a global Yankee order intent on destroying him and his partners. No serious criticism can be launched without accusations of manipulation or extortion. In a world where all criticism is simply dismissed as a product of secretive forces intent on stripping away your authority, all that is left is the power of irony. The wonderful YouTube series La Isla Presidencial is an example of how humor can be used to disarm an otherwise indestructible rhetoric. I believe that a proclivity to irony is found when people feel that serious debate is not even worth having because they wont be listened to. In any case, Chavez’s dismissal of any thoughtful critique has created a sense of frustration among those who oppose him, he has pushed them slowly and surely to ever more marked extremes.
The public elation in many sectors in and outside of Venezuela of Chavez’s illness reminds me of the last scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. In that scene of the film (spoiler alert), all the leaders of the Nazi party are convened to watch the premiere of a propaganda film featuring the heroic acts of an SS soldier who singlehandedly kills more than a hundred people. You are meant to be disgusted by the way in which the Nazis revel at the vicious destruction of human life. Later, the very theater where all the Nazi leaders are convened lights up in flames ending the spectators’ lives in one quick swoop. Suddenly you are the spectator celebrating death. Tarantino’s brilliance is that placing this sequence of events you are left with a moral dilemma over whether or not it is okay to cheer for the death of Hitler, Goebbels, et al. Just to be clear, I am not saying Chavez is a Nazi, calling anyone who does/did not engage in the purposeful, vicious and, especially, systematic destruction of a particular ethnic, religious or social group is more than cheap rhetoric, it is insulting to the victims of Nazi atrocities. I am simply using the film to highlight the moral dilemma that was re-kindled as a result of Chavez’ illness. It is probably wrong to feel any happiness for anyone who is struggling to stay alive. Yet Chavez has himself created a system of polarization, where people are with him or against him. The way he has transformed democracy against itself has created that situation. It is his own doing that as he’s unconscious and ailing in Cuba, even those with a strong moral compass may find their hearts hoping for the end.