MONTREAL — He came to power in the late 1990s, his energetic governing style ushering in an era of increasing prosperity that earned him plenty of goodwill. Luck also helped some: his rule coincided with an era of rising oil prices, and he used the petrodollars that flooded the state’s coffers to finance a dizzying consumption boom throughout the country. This helped him maintain his popularity even as urban elites became more and more disillusioned with his autocratic streak, deepening militarism, rampant corruption and his disdain for the traditional hallmarks of democracy.
Vladimir Putin? Hugo Chávez? Both fit the description. Yet while many in the West tend to see through the thin veneer of democracy that Putin has pasted over his autocratic rule of Russia, they fail to see the Venezuelan version so clearly. Why is that?
For the last 12 years, I’ve been writing about the accelerated collapse of constitutional government in Venezuela, about the alarming cult of personality surrounding Chávez, about his lack of regard for civil rights, due process of law and the separation of powers. Online, where readers can post comments to my articles, they nearly always come forward to defend the Chávez government, noting its electoral legitimacy and undoubted popularity. Sometimes they hint darkly that I must be an agent of imperialist corporate media and have a subversive agenda. I seldom see this kind of push-back in reaction to reports about the eerily similar Putin regime.
I think the difference is partly a matter of marketing. Chávez’s cheerful tropical anti-imperialism has an allure that Putin’s scowling Slavic strongman persona will always lack. Partly, too, the difference has to do with the demand for left-wing posturing among the Western elites that are disgusted by the policy catastrophes in Iraq, on Wall Street and in Greece.
But I also think that views of Chávez and Putin diverge because of a phenomenon the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls “Third Worldism”: the subconscious drive of Westerners to infantilize the global South by mythologizing it and projecting fantasies onto peoples rendered exotic by distance and a history of oppression. According to Bruckner, Western leftists see the world as a confrontation between “a spontaneous, sentimental and just Third World” and a West that is “rapacious and cruel.” Chávez has been expertly exploiting this interpretative shortcut for years. But it’s a trick that the rulers of Russia — a country more or less seen as part of the rapacious and cruel West anyway — haven’t mastered.
“It is because they are said to be underdeveloped that the African, Indian and Chinese are better than us; they are not ‘backward’ but premature,” Bruckner writes in his brilliantly iconoclastic essay “The Temptation of Innocence: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” “Their backwardness is really an advance, for they are still in touch with the origins of the world at a time when we are already in the twilight.”
For Bruckner, the sympathy that radical leaders like Chávez receive from Western progressives is an extension of the colonial mindset. When it lionizes figures like Che Guevara — whose record is more mixed than is commonly accepted — the Western left is implying that the people of the global South should be happy with standards of civil liberty well below those it would consider acceptable for itself.
Being infantilized, being told that we Southerners have no right to expect the civil liberties that First World progressives take for granted, being asked to tolerate authoritarianism — this is what I’m confronted with just about every time I write about Venezuela for an audience outside Venezuela. Go on, add a comment below: I’m sure there’ll be some of that push-back this time, too.
Ah, if only I’d been born Russian…
Francisco Toro blogs about the Chávez era at CaracasChronicles.com.