Friday, 10 August 2007

The most dangerous man in the world?

We are not worried enough about Hugo Chavez. He may not have nuclear weapons (like Kim Il-Jong), he may not command a mighty army (like Vladiamir Putin) and he may not support terrorists (like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) but that does not stop him posing a real threat to his own people, to his region and ultimately to the rest of the world. He has a weapon that is far more dangerous than any WMD: showmanship. His talent for self promotion has made him the world's leading spokesperson for the anti-democratic populism that his regime practices at home and is trying to spread abroad.

Before we go any further let us be clear about what Hugo Chavez is and what he has done. He first sought power in a military coup and only sought power through elections once this had failed. Once he had gained power, he has been ruthless in ensuring that he would be able to hold onto it. Opposition activists have faced violence, free speech has been stifled and an independent judiciary replaced with political puppets.

This abysmal record should come as no surprise to anyone. For all his talk of socialism, Chavez cannot really be described as a socialist. His cultivation of a personality cult give the clearest indication of the fact that his true ideological home is Peronism. Which is itself modeled on Italian Fascism. He comes from a tradition that is deeply nationalistic and treats democracy, human rights and an open economy as worthless foreign imports.

Chavez's malevolent influence is felt far beyond Venezuela. Candidates modeling themselves on and funded by Chavez have won elections in Bolivia and Ecuador. They have come close to doing so in Peru and Mexico. Venezuela gives considerable support to the Cuba's communist government, without which it is doubtful that the regime could maintain the economic isolation that it uses to cut off its people. He is also more than happy to back Iran's appalling government.This influence is possible due to Venezuela's huge oil reserves, which give Mr Chavez the money to spend on Costa Rican elections, Iranian power stations and London's commuters.

What makes Chavez uniquely dangerous is the fact that he has successfully managed to present his record in Government as something worthy of emulation. Few people look at the totalitarian government of North Korea and wish that there country had its own 'dear leader.' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's brand of repressive theocracy has a very narrow appeal and is increasingly unpopular even in Iran. Vladimir Putin tends to be feared rather loved by non-Russians. He has shown very little interest in public opinion outside of Russia and its immediate sphere of influence, which is just as well since he lacks Mr Chavez's charisma. By contrast the perception of Venezuela in many parts of the world is that it is an example of a successful socialist economy which has stood up to the United States. This is a model that particularly in Latin America many will wish to imitate.

The reality is, of course, very different. The success of Venzuala's economy is not the result of any move towards socialism. Inequality has actually risen under Mr Chavez and a new class of well connected, very wealthy businessmen known as 'Boligarchs' have emerged. Instead he has been fortunate enough to have his presidency coincide with a spike in the price of oil that has enabled him to pour money into his much vaunted anti-poverty programs that have led to big reductions in poverty. This mirage of success has given Chavez the chance to claim that he has produced a new model of 'bolivarian socialism' that other countries should imitate. The xenophobia and the suppression of political and economic freedom that this ideology implies is a deeply unwelcome and Chavez's role in unleashing it illustrates just how dangerous a charlatan with a bit of luck and a flair for presentation can be.

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