Friday 8 March 2013

Drezner on Chavez and conspiracy theories

Dan Drezner comments on the commentary on Chavez's death and on Venezuelans' penchant for conspiracy theories.  He distances himself from either of the 'extremes' that would laud or denounce Chavez:
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Moving on from the (reactionary) reactions to asking what it all means for regional politics, Drezner continues:
[W]ith Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. ... I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories

Drezner goes on to list the ways in which Venezuela is one "political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States".

He's not wrong.  Chavez certainly indulged many bizarre conspiracy theories and never missed an opportunity to blame U.S. imperialism for any- and everything.  However, he also proved the truth of that old, pithy adage "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you."  He was certainly paranoid and sometimes seemed quite deluded but there's no doubt that the U.S. government were out to get him.

I think Drezner doesn't give enough weight to the reality of U.S. interference but he does acknowledge it, admitting to "a past history of U.S. interventions in the [Venezuelan] domestic body politic" and that "the United States play[ed] a minor supporting role in a recent [2002] coup attempt".  Many fail to see this connection at all, however.  To them I say:

You think the CIA only meddled in South American politics in the 1970s and '80s?  That's adorable.

Let's face it: when it comes to how the U.S. distinguishes between enemy and ally, locking up a few opposition leaders, leaning on the press a bit or building a cult of personality is pretty insignificant stuff.  Compared to the likes of Saudi Arabia (to name but one) Chavez's crimes and misdemeanors are almost quaint. None of that excuses anything he's done but it does illustrate the fact that none of his alleged crimes account for his pariah status. Perhaps these things should be the reason -- but clearly they're not.

Chavez and his politics are detested in the U.S. because they're socialist.  That's the top and bottom of it.  He made many questionable decisions and even more questionable alliances but, ultimately, it was his nationalising, socialising, poor-loving policies that placed him beyond the pale.  Far from him being a 'tyrant' who ruled with an iron fist he was a populist who was -- *gasp!* -- very popular.  That is why he was a threat -- the very fact he didn't need to rule as an unelected dictator was what made him so very dangerous.

The idea that the poor can take party political power and simply decide to use their national resources for their own benefit rather than abiding by unfairly negotiated contracts that chiefly benefit elites and foreign companies -- this is a revolutionary notion; a notion that threatens U.S. interests at their very core (primitive accumulation).  This is what placed Chavez in the cross-hairs of the U.S. national security state.

While most of the conspiracy theories flying hither and thither in Venezuela today are most likely complete nonsense, the U.S. has a long, long, long history of interfering with the democratic affairs of countries it deems to be subordinate, Venezuela included.  We may only have hard evidence and admissions for crimes long past but it takes imponderable naivety to think that the hulking behemoth that is the U.S. national security infrastructure is now somehow above trying to overthrow, undermine or generally mess with democratically elected governments that it deems inadequate.

The Chavez-haters are throwing stones while standing in a glass house.  The U.S. has no moral high ground to occupy (nor does the UK for that matter).  Venezuela may be a breeding ground for many bizarre, nonsensical conspiracy theories but the U.S.'s picture of Venezuela is scarcely any less deluded -- convinced as most are that Chavez was the South American Gaddafi or Saddam (an image not dissuaded by Chavez's own diplomatic conduct, it's true).  Nor has U.S. conduct towards Venezuela been in the least bit innocent over the years.

They might be paranoid but that doesn't mean that the U.S. government isn't out to get them.  Maybe the first step to making the Venezuelan people less paranoid is to stop giving them so many reasons to be.

As mentioned above, Dan acknowledges that U.S. conduct is a factor in the equation of Venezuelan paranoia, historically, but plays it down by concluding thus:
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
So, ultimately, all the responsibility is placed on Venezuealans to grow up and be more rational -- the U.S. is implied to be little more than a bystander in this process.  Reform, embrace liberal capitalism, etc.  That's the prescription.  'It's their problem, not ours.'

While Venezuelan politics undoubtedly thrives on conspiracy theories, another way to ease the conspiracy mania in Venezuela would be to stop the hysterical attitudes displayed by so many commentators on Venezuela in the U.S. media.  Or, try not subverting a democratically elected South American government for a decade or two.  Or, acknowledge the legitimacy of democratic, socialist governments and their policies.  Or, stop supporting the kind of pernicious, malevolent capitalism that seeks to crush resitant regimes and exploit the poor.  Heck, maybe even stop trying to make the entire world subordinate to your imperial rule.

You know, be proactive.