There’s a revealing controversy about the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez — was he born into poverty or was he really, like so many communist revolutionaries, middle-class? Here’s what the facts reveal: Chavez grew up in comfortable poverty, the poverty of a crowded cottage in a boondock village on the edge of the small rural town of Sabaneta. Worlds away from the crushing urban poverty he saw when he came to Caracas.
But he was middle-class in the sense that both his parents were respected people, school teachers, and together they earned enough to send two sons, one of them young Hugo, off to college.
There, he learned he could be comfortably ahead of the many radically poorer students from the countryside or the towns and still be miles behind the relatively tiny Venezuelan upper classes.
But his real education came in the military, one of the best places for an unconnected bumpkin to rise, which Hugo Chavez did. But he also learned that in the army as in so many areas of Venezuelan life in the 1980s, connections of cronyism or corruption could help you rise faster, and that this was unjust and inefficient and needed fixing.
Fixing Venezuela required rising to power and in 1992, Chavez gave it a try the old-fashioned way, a “young officers” military coup. It failed and he was jailed. But two years later he was released, and shortly after, went to Cuba, met with Fidel Castro, and found his political models in Fidel and his Cuban Communist totalitarianism.
What does that mean? Authoritarian governance from the top down married to deep and wide networks of influence and surveillance from the bottom up. Forms of democracy, serial re-elections and enabling plebiscites are useful, but only as they advance the goal of total control.
Going the electoral route paid off for Chavez, who won the presidency in 1998 and kept it in four elections thereafter.
Chavez got close to his totalitarian goal, but Venezuela has a culture and a history of individual options and opportunities that makes it hard to control. Chavez couldn’t make it to his fourth inauguration, he was too sick. He died of cancer two months after what was meant to be Inauguration Day in 2013.
His successor Nicolas Maduro would seem to embody the concept of the repetition of history as farce, except there is nothing funny about life in his impoverished police state.
Moisés Naím is a Venezuelan journalist and writer. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2013, the British magazine Prospect listed Naím as one of the world’s leading thinkers. In 2014 and 2015, Dr. Naím was ranked among the top 100 influential global thought leaders by Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) for his book The End of Power. “The End of Power” was also selected as the first book for followers of Mark Zuckerberg‘s 2015 book club to read.
Naím served as the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine for 14 years (1996-2010). Since 2012, he has directed and hosted Efecto Naím, a weekly televised news program on the economy and international affairs that airs throughout the Americas on NTN24. In 2011, he received the Ortega y Gasset Prize for his important contribution to journalism in the Spanish language.
His latest book, an “edge of the seat thriller, is 2 Spies in Caracas.