Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Revolutionary methodology: history repeating?

Since 1992, when Hugo Chávez unsuccessfully tried to putsch his way to power, he has come a long way; he has become more calculating and less impulsive, though he is still reputed to suffer from uncontrollable outbursts of fury. Some believe that his success in consolidating his power during the last six years can be attributed in no small measure to the mentorship of Fidel Castro, who has displayed the ability to hold on to his power no matter what. Any lessons he may have taught Hugo Chávez are sure to have stood him in good stead.

As is immediately apparent to anyone reading this blog, I am no fan of Chávez's; yet I have to tip my hat to the way he has entrenched himself in power. This has caused incalculable damage to the country's society and democratic system, but has been extraordinarily fructiferous for the president as a person and as an office-bearer. How did he do it? Here's my take on his methodology. I will point out some interesting parallels to Adolf Hitler's ascent to power.

The first step was to get a foot in office. After his 1992 putsch attempt, Chávez was jailed for conspiracy. Apparently he used the time in prison to read widely and refine his thinking. He received a presidential pardon before completing his term, which made him eligible to campaign for the presidency (without the pardon, he would have had a previous conviction that would have made him ineligible). Adolf Hitler similarly led an abortive putsch (the Beer Hall Putsch) in 1923, was imprisoned, used the time to read, think, and write Mein Kampf, and was released after less than a year in prison after receiving an amnesty. Both men glorified the military, though Chávez did not progress beyond being a colonel, and Hitler beyond being a corporal.

Once out of prison, Chávez and Hitler began slowly building up support by creating or taking control of political parties representing themselves as popular movements (Movimiento Quinta Republica in Venezuela, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in Germany). Both men based their second attempt to gain power on elections rather than putsches. They attempted to build support in the respective populations by campaigning on platforms that identified enemies and emotional issues within the country as targets to be addressed through revolutionary methods once in power. In the case of Venezuela, the enemies and issues were the "oligarchs" and the rich, old-style politics according to the Pact of Punto Fijo (which had enabled Venezuelan democracy to function, though not flawlessly, for over 40 years), so-called "neo-liberalist" economic policies, the influence of the USA, racism, and the lacking integration of ethnic minorities. In Germany, Hitler identified democracy, Jews, capitalists and communists (!), the Weimar Republic and its politicians, the conditions of the Versailles Peace Treaty, and a supposed lack of land ("Lebensraum") as issues.

Both politicians relied on techniques satirised perfectly in George Orwell's novel Animal Farm: creating a revolutionary ideology supposedly based on equality and social advancement (Animal Farm: "Animalism", Germany: "National Socialism", Venezuela: "Bolivarian Revolution"); leadership through demagoguery and idolization of a single individual (AF: Napoleon, GE: Hitler, VE: Chávez); far-reaching political promises that remain unfulfilled (AF: equality and self-determination of animals; GE: pride and self-determination of Germans; VE: pride and self-determination of Venezuelans); the identification of internal and external enemies as a justification for the infringement of liberties (AF: Snowball and the humans, GE: Jews and any country that resisted Germany´s expansionism, VE: "oligarchs" and the USA).

In Venezuela, Chávez's campaign platform created the illusion that he would improve conditions significantly in the country (eliminate corruption and poverty, for instance); voters responded by giving him an overwhelming majority upon electing him to office in 1999. Hitler also gained ever-increasing support in the elections he contested with the NSDAP after 1930, but never managed to win more than 50% of votes in any election; however, his party became the largest and he was able to set conditions that paved his way to power.

The development of the revolutions in Germany and Venezuela diverges somewhat after this point. Whereas Hitler acted very quickly to consolidate his power (by eliminating any opposition, concentrating all state power in his person and his party, taking control of the media as well as the legislative and judiciary systems), Chávez has been taking a much longer time; nonetheless, it appears that his goal is the same, and appears to be ever closer in his reach. The opposition is currently in tatters, Chávez controls most of the state's power directly or indirectly, and is strenthening his grip on the media as well as parliament and the courts.

However, whereas Hitler actually enjoyed increasing support from German society, it appears that Chávez's is declining. This may be because Chávez is not delivering on his promises of eliminating corruption and poverty, which have been increasing rather than being reduced. Hitler, on the other hand, through a massive expansion in state involvement in the economy as well as the military-industrial complex, did reduce unemployment and achieve growth.

Hitler and Chávez both delight in all things military, but fortunately, Chávez does not have the werewithal to convert Venezuela into a military superpower as Hitler did with Germany. Still, he is spending a large part of his budget on military hardware; to which aim is anybody's guess. Venezuela has no neighbours threatening its territorial integrity. And if Chávez believes, as some have said, that the United States will be invading Venezuela, then he is off dreaming in cloud-cuckooland. More probably, the purchase serves to improve relations with a powerful potential benefactor, Russia; and machine guns are always a useful thing to have on hand when exporting revolutions or strengthening them within the own country, for instance if the people are not as keen on them as their leaders.

Finally, an important difference between the two leaders is that while Hitler is universally reviled by thinking people around the world (though he is reputed to still be liked by some Arab extremists), Chávez still divides public opinion and has some supporters. However, if his story continues to follow the pattern set by other revolutions, history is not likely to judge him favourably.


Blogger Jose Roman Duque said...

hat off to your analogies...
as a Venezuelan living abroad, I totally agreed with your views of the conclicts.

take care while you travel thru my beautiful yet destroyed country

1:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this - a fascinating comparison. I have never read much about Hitler, but did read some things lately, and was struck by some of the similarities myself.

I would add one - the Enabling Laws. Hitler was given near-permanent power to pass laws. Chavez was given similar power temporarily, under which he passed the Leyes Habilitantes (http://www.asambleanacional.gov.ve/ns2/discursos/LISTADO_HABILITANTE.ASP). I would argue that, right now, he has de facto enabling law authority, considering that the National Assembly simply bows to his wishes. This is especially true after the bizarre decision that it is legal to modify a law, which required a 2/3 majority to enact, with only a simple majority.

I would also say that there is a reason for one dissimilarity, the speed in which the two have moved toward authoritarianism. Hitler judged (rightly) that he would meet no international opposition. Chavez, should he do the same, would be greeted with outrage and ostracism. He has to maneuver with a veneer of legality, which takes more time. However, my maintaining the form of following the law, though not the spirit, he can remain cloaked as a true democrat and not raise enough hackles abroad to have any real effect.

10:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, a fascinating perspective - thanks for writing this. I've never studied Hitler, but I looked something on him up recently and was myself struck by some of the similarities.

I would add one more, that I see as very significant. Hitler had his Enabling Laws, which gave him nearly dictatorial powers. Chavez had the same, formally, for a brief time, which allowed him to decree a large number of Leyes Habilitantes, some of which are quite extensive in scope. (See http://www.asambleanacional.gov.ve/ns2/discursos/LISTADO_HABILITANTE.ASP)

I would argue too, though, that he has de facto enabling power right now, as the majority of the National Assembly is very bent to his will. Combine that with the bizarre legal decision that a simple majority is sufficient to modify what Constitutionally required a 2/3 majority to implement, and what he wants becomes law. Does anyone think the Ley Resorte, Supreme Court additions, new Penal Law passed for any other reason than simply that Chavez wanted them to?

4:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double post - I sent the first one last night and it didn't appear by this morning, at least on my computer. However, the last paragraphs are somewhat different - if you can and would choose to edit those comments, I would ask that the last paragraph be added to the other first.

4:05 pm  
Blogger John said...

Dear Anonymous,

thanks for your post: I had forgotten all about Chávez's enabling laws when I was writing the post, but it is of course an obvious commonality between the two men's development.

Another bizarre similarity between Hitler and Chávez is that they have both been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace! That's an unbelievable historical factoid in both cases. The 1938 campaign for Hitler's prize was led by none less than Gertrude Stein, which makes it even more curious.

Regarding your doubly posted comment, never mind: there is no quota on the number of comments a blog posting can have. Unfortunately, posts cannot be edited; however, they can be deleted, but only by the same person who posted the comment, which means that anonymous posters can do nothing to change their posts. Sorry about that!

Best wishes for 2005,

2:44 pm  
Blogger Daniel said...

Great post. And welcome to our blogger group.

3:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pleeeeaaaase!!! The Nobel Peace Prize has become a laughing stock. Just look at who has been "awarded" this prize in the last 10 years. One comes to mind: Arafat - one of the worse terrorist ever. Perhaps it should be awarded this year to Osama bin Laden!!!!!

7:17 pm  
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