WASHINGTON, March 11, 2013 — The presidency of Hugo Chavez ended last week with news that the 58 year-old had succumbed to cancer. Venezuelans flooded the streets to mourn his death. Scores of liberal politicians and celebrities in this country also expressed sorrow over his passing.
Why would Americans, who possess so many economic, political, and social rights, mourn the death of a dictator? Because “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Chavez, who ruled Venezuela since 1999, was widely recognized as an enemy of the United States and all it stands for. Chavez was a proud socialist who detested capitalism and accused the United States of being an imperialist power. He made sure that whoever was an enemy of the United States became his friend.
Chavez described Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe as a “freedom fighter.” Saddam Hussein was a “brother.” When he learned of Colonel Gaddafi’s death, Chavez called Gaddafi the “liberator of Libya,” adding, “He will be remembered as a great fighter, a revolutionary, and martyr.”
Chavez said of Jews, “The descendants of the same people that crucified Christ…have taken control of the riches of the world.” He didn’t mention that he also possessed riches – he died with an estimated fortune of $2 billion while many in his country continue to flounder in poverty.
Like many dictators today and in the past, Chavez was charismatic and possessed “book smarts” as well as “street smarts.” He knew what people wanted to hear and what they needed to hear. That helped make him a hero to many liberals in the United States.
Chavez imprisoned journalists who published stories critical of him. He withdrew Venezuela from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, he demanded to know the names of voters who voted against him, and he banned foreign funding for civil society organizations in Venezuela. None of that matters to his fans as much as the fact that Chavez hated the United States. To people in this country who perceive the United States as more of a problem than problem-solver, Chavez was a hero who will be missed.
New York Representative Jose Serrano, a Democrat, tweeted about Chavez, “At his core he was a man who came from very little and used his unique talents and gifts to try to lift up the people and the communities that reflected his impoverished roots.” Perhaps Serrano sees a little of himself in Chavez but that shouldn’t let him overlook the fact that Chavez presided over a country that is now ranked by the World Economic Forum 126 out of 144 in terms of economic competitiveness.
Serrano has an image of Chavez much like the image of Ernesto Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. Serrano and others think of Chavez as a revolutionary who had the courage to stand up to the big bad bully: the United States. What Serrano and others have overlooked is that Chavez himself was a bully to his own people.
Serrano wasn’t the only major American figure to mourn Chavez. At a candlelight vigil for Chavez, actor Sean Penn said, “He’s one of the most important forces we’ve had on the planet.” Former president Jimmy Carter was quoted by the BBC as saying Chavez “will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments.” Dr. Boyce Watkins, a professor who regularly appears on CNN, stated on his Facebook page that Chavez was a “hero.” Some of Dr. Watkins’ followers chimed in with “R.I.P” and “I liked Chavez and I don’t care who knows it.”
People who feel oppressed in this country considered Chavez a friend because Chavez opposed the U.S. The positive sentiments expressed for Chavez are similar to NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman’s comments about North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un. Rodman visited that isolated country last week to attend a basketball game between the Harlem Globe Trotters and a North Korean team. Rodman had friendly conversations with Un and was even toasted by the North Korean dictator.
Rodman never visited the numerous labor camps in North Korea where people are languishing and will likely spend the rest of their lives for committing crimes such as opposing the regime. Rodman never encountered the hundreds-of-thousands of starving North Koreans. People like Rodman, Serrano, Penn, Carter, and Dr. Watkins overlook the devastating policies of these dictators. They see strongmen who oppose the United States.
For every person who loved and admired Chavez, another felt the devastating effects of his policies. Leocenis Garcia was imprisoned in 2008 for publishing articles critical of Venezuela’s state-run petroleum industry. He launched a hunger strike in 2010 after proclaiming he had been tortured by Venezuela’s secret police. In May 2009, Chavez seized 28,417 acres of private property, stating “Land isn’t private, it’s the property of the nation.” In December 2010, allies of Chavez in Venezuela’s National Assembly passed laws that put restrictions on internet traffic and allowed the government to terminate broadcasting licenses.
How would Dr. Watkins feel if a Republican administration helped to pass a law that allowed it to prevent CNN from having him on air? One Venezuelan wrote on his Facebook page: “After 14 years, Venezuela is finally free! No more despotism!” I would caution this person that just because a dictator has died does not guarantee the country that he ruled will become free. His sentiment, however, is felt by many Venezuelans. For every Venezuelan who poured into the streets to mourn Chavez, there was another Venezuelan who breathed a sigh of relief.
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