When Hugo Chavez became President of Venezuela in 1998, I celebrated the new savior of socialism. After a decade of repressive neo-liberalism in South America, Chavez's Bolivarian revolution promised to wrestle power and petrodollars away from the corrupt oligarchs and hand it back to the disenfranchised poor. I watched from afar with excited wonder.
At the time, Chavez's victory seemed as improbable as it was inevitable. The International Monetary Fund had ravished South American countries, forcing them to pry open their economies to foreign corporations for loans they couldn't possibly repay. A former military leader who had once staged a fail coup, Chavez gave Latin America a strong leader to stand up to this broken model. Swept up by his fiery speeches, I believed change was near.
When Chavez modified the constitution in 1999 to extend the president's term of power and passed a law in 2000 that allowed him to rule by decree for one year, I brushed off what some called a ploy for power. The Constitution changes were passed in a referendum and enshrined human rights for Venezuela's minorities. The decree allowed Chavez to bypass a stalling Congress and fulfill his promises of bringing better homes, health and education to the poor. As the balance of power shifted to the slums, I felt confident Chavez was heading the right way.
When Chavez admonished the US for bombing innocent civilians in Afghanistan and pleaded for them to not fight "terrorism with terrorism," I saluted his reason and resolve to support people the rest of the world ignored. While so many other governments bowed to US violence and corruption, Chavez refused to be bullied. I cheered the underdog's fight against the giant.
When Chavez fired the management at the state-owned oil company in 2002 and replaced them with his supporters, I wondered if he was centralizing too much power. But when the opposition staged a coup (supported by the US, but lasting only two days), I realized just how dangerous his detractors were to democracy. I sat back with anxious concern to see how Chavez would handle the turmoil.
For the next few years, Chavez remained a fascinating curiosity. I supported his programs to transfer land back to indigenous people, increase social welfare programs and create a regional news network called Telesur. Yet I felt nauseous when he glad-handed with Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bought billions of dollars in weapons from Russia and China, and threw his oil money around the world with almost reckless abandon.
But perhaps no conflict best exemplifies the ambivalence I feel toward Chavez than his battle against the opposition-aligned RCTV – Venezuela's oldest television network. During the failed coup attempt, RCTV was accused of doctoring images of Chavez supporters firing into crowds of unarmed protesters. When Chavez retook power after mass protests demanded his reinstatement, RCTV aired cartoons and cooking shows.
When RCTV's broadcasting license came up for renewal earlier this year, Chavez refused to renew it. Although RCTV had acted irresponsibly, I wondered whose benefit it would serve to take the station off the air – certainly not the Venezuelans who rallied in the streets to support freedom of speech. When RCTV went onto cable and Chavez tried to get the Supreme Court to force it to air his frequent and lengthy live speeches, I felt he had breached his bounds of power.
When Chavez recently proposed to change the Constitution again and abolish any limit on the president's terms in power, while eliminating the Central Bank's autonomy and threatening to deport foreigners who criticized his government, I could no longer pretend he was anything more than another of the autocratic Latin American caudillos that his people had fought so hard to depose.
When Chavez now says, "I doubt there is any country on this planet with a democracy more alive than the one we enjoy in Venezuela today," I listen with dread and disappointment.