That’s what Hugo Chavez was, and what mainstream US political opinion still is.
Amidst the eulogies, I’ve been having my own reflections on the man and his movement.
Between 2002 and 2004, I had the pleasure/frustration of researching diverse aspects of US-Venezuela relations. I was also active in briefings, sign-on letters, research, lobby visits and more, in an attempt to dial down US-Venezuela antagonisms in the wake of the US-supported coup in Venezuela.
Democracy preservation did not seem like it would have been controversial. Boy, was I wrong.
First of all, it was difficult to get the Hill to pay attention, beyond the Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul types. This got harder with every unhelpful thing Chavez said, which of course only seemed to help him more in building a movement in Venezuela.
Second, much of the traditional left in DC wasn’t into it. Here was a military man running a state – hardly the politically correct model of social change in an era when the left idolized non-state social movements like the Zapatistas. (I remember a conversation between a Venezuelan colleague and a bunch of global justice student activists. The former lectured us that American progressives were too afraid to seek state power so as to be able to actually test our ideas. That’s probably changed a bit with the Obama generation, although I’m not sure that there are so many ideas to test now. Unhappily, merely holding together the threads of government seems to be the main task of progressives nowadays.)
Third, there was all sorts of overt and covert ways that people were discouraged from doing work on Venezuela. The newspapers weren’t going to acknowledge you, so-called “progressive” magazines would make fun of you, foundations were not going to fund the work, future employers would be turned off by it, and – if you were unlucky – you got stalked by Venezuelan opposition activists who would leak your home address on the Internets.
And this is for the people that weren’t even necessarily saying that Chavez was a wise or good government leader!
US-Venezuela relations never got great (although pro-Bolivarian activists seem to have gotten the movement more institutionalized respect on the left), and I moved on to work on other interests. But I learned a lot during that period of activism.
For better or worse, the Latin American left movement of the 2000s (the move away from armed revolution and towards governing) would probably never have happened without a colorful leader who the world (and I) couldn’t help but watch. He didn’t get a lot of thanks for that, but it’s probably done more for regional stability than the mainstream acknowledges.