While trying to take in the latest episode of the steamy Spanish-language soap Chavismo — on my laptop, of course — a somehow less fetching, English-speaking Latina crowded out Hugo’s latest bombshell in a full-length internet ad. Discover a Larger Life With Blackberry, the tagline said, while beneath Ms. Nina Garcia, Elle fashion director, ran her personal “testimonial”: “It never leaves my side.” Slavish dependence, I realized, is the new empowering independence. This larger perspective discovered, I returned to the news that Hugo Chavez has yanked Venezuela from the IMF and the World Bank with a whole new outlook on life.
Instead of bristling with concern as we watch the oil nationalizations, hear the anti-globalism rhetoric, and feel the anti-American heat, why don’t we smile at Chavez from the shoreside and wave goodbye — at least on a trial basis? We could consider it an even bet. After a couple years of sky-high minimum wages and rock-bottom food shortages, will Chavez — or whoever replaces him — come crawling back to the international economy? Or will Venezuelan reserves of oil and natural gas, with an estimated worth of less than half the cost of the annual Iraq war budget, serve as an immortal money tree, money magically untainted by the inflation Chavez seems unable to shout under the table.
I bet I’m not the only one interested in finding out. The truth is, it’s hard not to have a soft spot for Chavez. Who better than an autocratic socialist to tell History to hurry up and stop? Indeed, the bold plan to affirmatively drop out of History, rhetorically dismissing the cash value of the World Spirit as so much yanqui imperialism, belies a kooky conservative spirit. What a quaint conviction that national sovereignty actually means something! How droll it is when a head of state dons red fatigues and tells the world he intends to do domestic politics a cappella, without the accompaniment of international capital! Castro’s Cuba is an undying testament to the power of reactionary progressivism, and Chavez seems inspired to take the stick-in-the-mud movimiento to a whole ‘nother level.
Too bad, then, that Venezuela seems set to retain its membership indefinitely within that international cabal par excellence, OPEC. Chavez can’t seem to get through a speech without fawning from afar over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Like a missing scene or a clumsy dream sequence, the link between the welfare of the Venezuelan people and the unmatched sponsorship of transnational terrorism remains Chavismo‘s most amateurish continuity problem. If you’re going to repudiate complicity in the machinations of global capital, your world neighbors are either with you or against you. Come, now, Mr. Chavez — is it not high finance because it butchers innocents instead of buys Hummers? Is it not exploitative profiteering because the coffers belong to Hezbollah? Hath not a Jew eyes?
Perhaps I’ve picked the wrong analogy. But the analogical bond of true friendship between Iran and Venezuela hits the really false note, a hookup of convenience to give Chavez a crutch while he kicks out the stilts of the global economy with both feet. Imagine the slapstick comedy to come when Chavez, needing cash, turns to Iranian benefactors too clever by half to pull up roots, Security Council sanctions or no. And that’s not even to deliver the infinitely ironic punchline whereby a Castro protege state comes hat in hand to Mother Russia — only to discover that the stout old dowager of solidarnost’ has become the Paris Hilton of the world stage, heartless, opportunist, and for sale. This, my friends, is how to protect your precious sovereignty: let the police state and crony capitalism work hand in hand!
Chavez looks painfully unlikely ever to come to grips with that option. The essential pigheadedness of his devotion to ideological consistency when it helps least makes him almost charming, in that respect almost of a piece with his great nemesis, President Bush. But his rejection of the Bretton Woods system, which nearly destroyed what it took a generation to create over the course of one morning in 1998, threatens to reach a level of weird genius. There is nothing inevitable about the foot-binding of the world by top-down world capitalism, nothing at all; what’s sold as cosseting often is, really, corseting, or even trussing, and quixotic experiments like Chavez’s that detour from the planet’s “inevitable” realization of history can help head check the rest of us before the choice must come down to In or Out. It’s eerie how the logic of the marketplace also calls for total commitment or none at all, a with-us-or-against-us mindset for people at wont to label anything short of voluptuous surrender “isolationism.”
Venezuela’s go-it-alone approach manages to show three things: the prima facie hopelessness of Chavismo, the enduring point of exercising real sovereignty, and the brainless features of going for broke as a rank unilateralist and getting it. With so many valuable object lessons delivered up in so short a time, I suggest the moment has come to pause the dump truck of scorn and derision we’ve backed up to Caracas. Chavez may yet ruin Venezuela, but if the citizens of that land have a third of the sense I give them credit for, ruination will take a long time, a lot of effort, and yield mixed results.
In the meantime, we ought to congratulate Hugo on quitting an organization in which no one should want him anyway. There are other, less amusing elements of his foreign policy, of course, deserving of zero or negative applause. But if there’s one thing we have learned this century it’s the old lesson that ridicule can often be as disempowering as force. Nothing else deflates the ego of the exhibitionist tech yuppie quite like the passerby who takes in all the postured cool of their conspicuous Blackberrying and bursts out laughing.
Here’s hoping Hugo Chavez enjoys his new larger life.