This is an interesting article. I am no expert on either Castro or Chavez but from my limited knowledge Whitford's article conforms with what I know (or think I know!)
By the way Castro has not smoked cigars for some time now. If Whitford gets that wrong what else might he get wrong!
Chávez is no Castro
Neither the excesses nor the achievements of the Venezuelan leader are
in the same béisbol-park as his cigar-puffing neighbour.
March 1, 2007 9:30 PM
Hugo Chávez likes to style himself as a revolutionary. When he won
reelection last year, having finally broken the back of the domestic
opposition, he dedicated the victory to "the Bearded One": his friend
and mentor, Fidel Castro. Since then he's painted himself as the aging
Cuban's heir apparent, nationalizing Venezuela's largest
telecommunications and electricity companies and moving to take a
majority share in foreign-owned oil-drilling operations along the
From his bombastic policies to his trademark red beret, everything
about the Venezuelan leader's revolutionary streak is carefully
calibrated to stir up strong feelings in supporters and critics alike.
The American right's demonization of Chávez is in large part a
knee-jerk reaction to his outspoken praise for Castro and mimicry of
the Cuban's brand of revolutionary socialism. For much the same
reasons, as George Galloway showed yesterday, Chávez inspires
something close to infatuation among certain sections of the British
left. In Chávez's Bolivarian revolution, both sides hear echoes of
Havana, 1959, and are respectively appalled or enthralled.
The truth of the matter, however, is somewhat more complicated. Chávez
is no Castro: neither his excesses nor his achievements are in the
same béisbol-park as those of his cigar-puffing neighbor. The former
paratrooper is a more moderate breed of caudillo, using the rhetoric
of revolution to manipulate both his enemies and his allies, at home
Chávez has little time for the checks and balances of liberal
democracy. Both the Supreme Court and the National Assembly are
stuffed with his cronies; his knack for gaming the country's electoral
system makes Karl Rove look like Jefferson Smith; and he recently gave
himself the right to govern by decree well into 2008.
But if Chávez loads the decks, he is at least still playing the game.
He welcomes the legitimacy of being the more-or-less
democratically-elected leader of a more-or-less democratic country. He
may occasionally close down a TV station he dislikes, but he also
tolerates a robust and highly critical news media and allows
Venezuelans to gather in their thousands to demonstrate against him.
And while there are unsettling rumors of political detentions,
Venezuela has nothing to rival Cuba's systematic suppression of
Venezuela is a troubled nation [aren't they all? -- JD], then, but
hardly a totalitarian one. Neither, however, is it in the throes of
Cuban-style social revolution. Say what you like about Castro: in the
face of overwhelming odds, he gave Cuba a world-class health service,
a thriving biotech industry, and a free and flourishing education
system. Under his rule, despite America's misguided economic blockade
and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Cuba's infant mortality
rates fell below those of America; literacy soared. These achievements
don't begin to justify Castro's awful human rights record, but they
are astonishing feats of social engineering.
Chávez, with far greater resources and in the face of far fewer
obstacles, has accomplished far less. He has presided over a period of
enormous wealth - oil was $12 a barrel when he took office, and stands
at over $60 a barrel today - but has little to show for it besides a
hundred thousand AK47s and a hefty stack of frequent flyer miles [from
Chávez's globe-trotting diplomacy]. By some measures social spending
has actually decreased under Chávez; poverty is still rampant;
inflation remains high; more than a million Venezuelans remain
illiterate; corruption is rife; crime rates are rocketing.
Worse, many of Chávez's "revolutionary" programs fail to make lasting
improvements to Venezuelan society. Take Chávez's most-widely
trumpeted social program, the importation of some 20,000 Cuban doctors
to establish free local clinics for the poor. While the program has
done some good in the poorest barrios, it does little to fix
Venezuela's creaking healthcare system in the long term. When the oil
boom ends and the Cubans go home (or defect), Venezuela's poor will be
left back where they started: with a barely-functioning two-tier
The truth is that while Chávez's sympathy for the poor is probably
genuine, his "Bolivarian revolution" has sought not to impose seismic
structural changes on Venezuelan society, but rather to leverage the
country's oil wealth to temporarily paper over the cracks. Revolution,
for Chávez, was less an ideology than a gambit; in speaking so long
and so loudly of revolution, he hoped to polarize his own people and
international opinion, and thereby cement his own grasp on power.
Chavez is both a democrat and an authoritarian: opposition is too
widespread to be safely repressed, so he seeks instead to remain
broadly within the democratic mainstream, splitting and antagonizing
his critics, pushing them further to the right and then using their
very virulence to justify the concentration of power in his own hands.
In that light, preaching revolution has served Chávez well. The ragbag
of right-wingers and out-of-work oligarchs who make up the Venezuelan
opposition's leadership were sent into a predictable frothy-mouthed
frenzy by his talk of communist revolution; they now spend the bulk of
their time spluttering in reactionary outrage, attacking the model he
claims to represent rather than putting forward their own solutions to
the country's problems. His supporters, meanwhile, are too caught up
in the fervor of revolution to quibble over the erosion of their civil
Hugo Chávez's opponents like to portray him as a clown; in fact, he's
proven remarkably shrewd. He is neither a socialist saviour nor a red
menace; rather, he is a calculating and pragmatic leader who donned
the mantle of Castro-style revolutionary socialism to wrong-foot his
opponents. In attacking America and cosying up to Cuba, Chávez has now
won the support of a broad swathe of the international left, and the
opprobrium of a still-wider tract of the American right. Both sides
are ultimately playing into his hands, validating his revolutionary
sleight-of-hand and overlooking the essential realpolitik that lies,
for good or for bad, at the heart of chavismo.