The Bolivarian Kingfish

I had mixed feelings about Hugo Chavez. On the one hand, it was hard not to enjoy his flamboyant persona and Bush mockery. On the other hand, he was an elected autocrat whose human rights and economic records defined the term mixed bag. In the context of current dictators, he was near the bottom of the list when it came to repression, his methods tended more to bribery than murder:

And unlike Castro and many other autocrats, Chávez didn’t fear
elections; He embraced them. Most opposition leaders will tell you that
Venezuelan elections are relatively clean. The problem isn’t Election
Day—It’s the other 364 days. Rather than stuffing ballot boxes, Chávez
understood that he could tilt the playing field enough to make it nearly
impossible to defeat him. Thus, the regime’s electoral wizards engineered gerrymandering schemes that made anything attempted in the American South look like child’s play. Chávez’s campaign coffers were fed by opaque slush funds holding billions in oil revenue. The government’s media dominance drowned out the opposition.Politicians who appeared formidable were simply banned from running for office.
And the ruling party became expert in using fear and selective
intimidation to tamp down the vote. Chávez took a populist message and
married it to an autocratic scheme that allowed him to consolidate
power. The net effect over Chávez’s years was a paradoxical one:With each election Venezuela lost more of its democracy.

There is an Amercian politician that Chavez reminds me of. That’s right, Louisiana’s very own Governor/Senator Huey P. Long. Long stuck it to what he liked to call the “fat boys” while doing good things for poor and middle class folks including the Charity Hospital system and lavishing funding on the LSU system and during the Great Depression to boot. That was the good side. The Kingfish, like Chavez, was an elected autocrat who used fear and intimidation when it suited his purposes and bribery when that would do the trick.

And like Chavez and Hugo’s hero Fidel Castro, Huey had an outsized personality and loved to talk for hours upon end. I shudder at the mere thought of Long’s having access to state owned television, he would have surely used it in much the same way as Chavez.In his time in the Senate, Huey loved to filliblather in the days when cloture was much harder to invoke than it is now. Unlike Chinless Mitch and his ilk, Long was entertaining, often holding forth on his favorite dishes.

The Kingfish also named his own successor. In his case, it was the meek little man he installed in the Governor’s chair a few years before his assasination, Oscar K. Allen. No, I did not name my cat after OK Allen, y’all. Allen was a stooge and sycophant who did as he was told. Chavez’s Veep Nicolas Maduro seems to be cut from the same cloth but he may have more talent for demagoguery than the bland Allen ever dreamed of having:

Maduro’s statement informing
Venezuelans of Chávez’s death wasted no time in engaging in bizarre,
politically charged scapegoating. “We have no doubt, the time will come
in history when we can create a scientific commission to show that
Comandante Chávez was attacked with this disease,” said Maduro on
Tuesday. “We already have plenty of clues about this, it’s a very
serious matter that will have to be investigated by a special committee
of scientists.”

Some nefarious force gave the Commandante cancer? Those boys at the CIA are even more gifted in the dark arts than we imagined. Following this conspiracy theory should be very interesting to watch in the weeks leading up to the election called for by the Venezuelan constitution. The very existence of such a clause shows that Chavez was a populist autocrat who believed in elections of a sort, which given the history of South America made him a democrat with a small d and not your basic old school Caudillo.

There’s a lot of interesting articles about Chavez on the interwb today. Some I agree with and others I do not but like the Bolivarian Kingfish himself, none of them are dull:

John Lee Anderson in the New Yorker.

David Sirota at Salon.

Rory Calhoun in the Guardian.

The late Christopher Hitchens at Slate.

5 thoughts on “The Bolivarian Kingfish

  1. Huey Long put pressure on FDR to do the right thing. Where is our Huey Long?

  2. @aunt nene: Huey’s interest in national politics involved electing himself President in either 1936 or 1940. He did a lot of good as Governor but he was also a major crook so I’m glad he never became President. It would have made the Grant and Harding administrations look clean and honest.

  3. But he did a lot of good by threatening the chances of Roosevelt. Crook or not, it worked to the betterment of ordinary people. The establishment has, as far as I can tell, eliminated the chances of this happening again.
    The democrats have never been clean, but they did used to share some of the wealth. I would be happy to go back to that model.

  4. Several years ago I spoke to a bartender at the little place in Pirate’s Alley who told me she left Venezuela…I decided to be tactful and not get into a discussion.
    The comparison between Chavez and Long is a good one…
    And, up in these parts, O.K. Allen is sadly less remembered for what Earl Long said about him than for the English building at LSU named in his “honor.” There are actually some decent murals in the entryway that are undergoing or have undergone restoration recently.
    Earl Long, as you probably remember, said Allen would sign anything that crossed his desk — once including a leaf that blew in through an open window.

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