After years of waiting, my neighbour named the only child that she was blessed with “Chavez” in honour of “the man who expelled the Israelis in solidarity with the people of Gaza whilst the Arabs failed them,” she said.
My neighbour is not an exception in the Arab world that has eulogized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the extent that he has become one of the courageous warriors that poets commend, preachers laud and demonstrators glorify. As a matter of fact, despite that he is Venezuelan and regardless of his rise to power through the ballot box, Chavez is the closer to our examples of rulers who were populist leaders raising the slogans of revolution, rebellion and antagonism against imperialism and colonialism without having any real political and developmental insight or an in-depth strategic background in dealing with international variables.
This kind of ruler has three key characteristics that we can see in Chavez:
1) Fiery rhetoric rather than demonstrating rationalism or providing evidence. It is common knowledge that Chavez is an eloquent speaker who does not mince his words to the extent that on one occasion Spanish King Juan Carlos I, who is known to be a polite man, shouted at Chavez at a summit and told him to “shut up.”
Hugo Chavez presents a weekly program on Venezuelan television that, at times, has consisted of seven hours straight of continuous dialogue. A recent study published in 2008 revealed that Chavez had spent 2544 hours, since his rise to power, giving speeches through audio and visual media, which is the equivalent of 318 workdays and has broken all kinds of records regarding speeches since the introduction of radio and television. If the art of oratory is not exclusive to such leaders considering that some rational democratic rulers were also famous for their eloquence such as America’s Abraham Lincoln and France’s General De Gaulle, the role of public speaking here is to stir up emotion and rally the masses by raising slogans in order to obscure the problems that exist and divert attention away from the real challenges that are not discussed.
2) Claiming to identify with the nation and the spirit of the people in order to gag the opposition. Chavez, who has almost monopolized the oratory field in state media, does not even attempt to conceal his resentment for criticism, nor does he hesitate to accuse independent journalists of being enemies of the revolution and traitors to the people. Moreover, he used the legitimacy of the election process to eliminate and undermine his rivals, therefore making Venezuela the closest example of “sovereign democracy,” to use the words of former Russian President Vladimir Putin, meaning a unilateral authoritative regime supported by procedural mechanisms for multi-party elections.
3) Administrative and financial corruption is an inherent quality of this kind of regime that raises radical revolutionary slogans. It is common knowledge that Venezuela is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It is a country where bribery is rampant while Chavez uses oil revenues to buy off people on the inside, strengthen his influence in Latin America and export the Bolivian Revolution to which he claims loyalty.
Chavez realized how much we would enjoy calling the US the “devil” and describing Israel as a “handful of tyrants who have corrupted the world.” He realized how we would smile in delight at his personal attack on the former US president whom he called a liar, an autocrat and a drunkard, and called for uprooting the United Nations from New York and for the developing countries to pull out of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
There are two lessons that should be learnt in our Arab World from Chavez’s example:
1) That unilateral regimes are capable of adjusting to electoral legitimacy, which does not assimilate the democratic vision but is merely its procedural instrument. Despite the existence of multi-party pluralism and the regularity of the electoral process in Venezuela, the structure of the ruling system has not been changed; deep down, it remains despotic and reclusive (just like the former military regimes), even though it had changed on the outside. The real danger here lies in the likely downfall of the legitimate effectiveness of democracy so as to block all channels leading to a smooth transfer of power to destroy any sincere approach toward a peaceful transfer of power, which is the purpose of any democratic practice.
2) It is easy to gain extensive popular support through instigative and radical speeches based on the ethic of conviction rather than the ethic of responsibility (to use Weberian terminology). The existing danger here lies in the fact that these positions, which are mostly symbolic, do not have any concrete results. They only contribute to transforming political action into some kind of emotional zeal that obscures the complexity of the situation and what it is likely to lead to.
Chavez deserves to be praised by the Arabs for the chivalrous stance he adopted with respect to Gaza. However, it is the duty of Arabs to be very cautious about embracing the Chavezian example of governance.