Congratulations to Simon Romero of the Times for getting back to work on reporting news from Latin America. Our man in Havana, Bogota and Caracas apparently decided to take a break from scouring the region for meaningless tidbits of cultural oddity in order to lick his finger and gauge the direction of political winds stirring through Venezuela. His latest dispatch blows the doors off the received wisdom concerning Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Turns out, Chavez is politically controversial!
...this country's economic and social problems have become so acute lately that President Hugo Chavez is facing an unusual onslaught of criticism, even from his own supporters, about the management of the country.
An "unusual onslaught of criticism"? Romero seems to have missed the defining characteristic of Chavez's tenure over the course of the last decade, namely its success under duress. Chavez has never possessed "unquestionable authority" as Romero would have it, nor has political opposition to the Chavez regime at any point been "unthinkable." Had Romero done a little homework on the president's rise to power, he would know that dissent from the leftist ranks in reaction to chavismo is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, the tension between chavistas and those opposing the current administration sits at the heart of political developments in Venezuela since 1998.
It's hardly surprising, then, that Romero fails to acknowledge the very dilemma he inadvertently points out involving the demands on the Chavez administration, and its political program under the banner of Bolivarian socialism. Quoting one poor Caraceno dissatisfied with the president ("I cannot find beans, rice, coffee or milk"), Romero notes that food scarcity continues to animate the growing concern among the poor that the government is not doing enough for its citizens. Yet at the same time, Romero also notes that Chavez's promise to punish national food distributors caught hording groceries has "stirred deeper anxiety" among Venezuelans concerning state intervention into the private market.
And there you have it, folks. On the one hand, Chavez and company have been using the state as a means to ensure more equitable distribution of wealth, power and rights among the populations, which infuriates "the halves" in Venezuelan society. Therefore, and on the other hand, Chavez must carefully navigate the choppy waters of elite power politics so as not to instigate the critical mass that would result in his ouster from government. This, needless to day, frustrates the "have nots" at society's lowest rungs.
What's most interesting, and satisfying, about Chavez's populist Bolivarian revolution, however, is the degree to which he places faith in the ballot box. Which brings me to another point about Romero. I'm skeptical of the underlying logic driving his analysis of the Chavez regime. Somehow he assumes that Chavez's recent defeat at the polls on the issue of executive power expansion is a sign of political instability. On the contrary, it looks to me as if the popular checks on Chavez's rule suggests a strengthening of the democratic process there. Concerns (some of which I share) abound surrounding Chavez's dictatorial impulses. Yet it bears pointing out that Chavez has largely constructed his movement through regularized popular votes. His willingness to test the limits of popular toleration of power concentration should not be alarming given his refusal to resort to state coercion to get his way. Of course, none of this discussion finds its way into the Times. Apparently, the powers that be in New York are content to run roughshod over the very complexities that render politics not only interesting, but critically important.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Romero ends his piece by throwing his hands in the air. Appropriately enough, the final word is given to a young man named Jesus, who remarks with absolutely no trace of irony, "This situation will be fixed by no man. Only God."
Well in that case, I suppose I would prefer to read about drunken, transvestite bull-fighters.