Recently, it’s become popular to compare the Republican nominee for U.S. president, Donald Trump, and Venezuela’s late authoritarian leader, Hugo Chávez. Rory Carroll in The Guardian, Jennifer McCoy in Reuters, Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald, among others have noted the similarities in rhetoric and style between the New York real estate mogul and the former coup plotter and president of Venezuela.
The comparisons come from people who are well-informed about Venezuela and should know better. These flip attempts to draw the parallel are not only spurious, they are insulting to Venezuelans.
I am not an expert on U.S. politics, and I have no opinion on Mr. Trump other than what I read on the news, but I know a thing or two about Hugo Chávez. I can assure you Hugo Chávez was much worse than the facile Trump comparisons make him out to be. The insulting and divisiveness were not the worst of Chávez; the worst came later in how the former lieutenant colonel dismantled the checks and balances of democracy and corrupted the state. The caricature of Chávez as just a uncouth blowhard to make a political point is downright insulting to those of us still suffering from Chávez’s toxic legacy.
I understand where the comparison comes from. Trump, like Chávez before him, seems to revel in taunting his opponents. He uses insults as a badge of honor, seems to eschew facts and policy details, and favors unscripted communication that keeps his handlers on edge, and the media aghast. He is a mold-breaker that goes farther than any reasonable politician would, or should.
All of this is straight out of the Chávez playbook. But that’s just a footnote in the real Chávez story.
Chávez was not always an uncivil loudmouth. In 1998, when he first ran for president, he ran a disciplined campaign that drew many disaffected moderate voters to his fold. He also disguised his radicalness, saying that Cuba was a dictatorship and packaging himself as some sort of Tony Blair-Third Way moderate leftist.
Sure, he too blasted the old order, but he did so by pointing out the obvious: that the old order was dead and that it had failed the Venezuelan people. Few at the time disagreed with that assessment.
It was only after getting elected when he revealed himself as a radical—not in his speech, but in his actions.
A few months after his first election, he disbanded the country’s Supreme Court and shut down the National Assembly. And he called for a Constitutional Assembly empowered to rewrite all the laws and upend every institution, even though the Venezuelan Constitution he was elected under did not have such a mechanism.
Not only did he win an overwhelming majority in the Constitutional Assembly, he made sure voters approved of giving it “supra-constitutional powers.” In the space of just a few months, he had done away with all of the checks and balances that prevented him from exercising absolute power.
The coming years he consolidated his power. He fired 20,000 disloyal technocrats at the national oil company for striking against his moves to politicize the company. In that one move, Venezuela lost millions of person-hours of institutional knowledge. (Many of those technocrats went on to work in Canada, Colombia or the United States.) He shut down radio and TV stations who were critical of his government. And he routinely denied newspapers access to newsprint, effectively driving any newspapers out of business that were not partial to his views.
In one of the more grotesque episodes of his presidency, Chávez ordered a judge that had ruled against his interests imprisoned on live TV. While in jail, she was tortured and raped. To this day, she remains imprisoned. The move sent a powerful signal to the judiciary: toe the line, or else. According to Human Rights Watch, today Venezuela lacks any form of judicial check on executive power.
All of these moves also allowed Chávez to turn Venezuela into a narco-state. According to the testimony of some of his closest advisors, the late president had a first-hand role in allowing Colombia’s FARC guerrillas to use Venezuela as their favored transit route for half of the world’s cocaine.
Finally, Chávez’s disastrous policies are solely responsible for the destruction of the Venezuelan economy. This year, the IMF predicts GDP will contract by 10 percent, and inflation will top 700 percent. Venezuela’s recession is now entering its third year, and there is no end in sight for Venezuelans’ misery. All of this is the result of Hugo Chávez’s price controls, currency controls, and expropriations.
That, and not his media persona, is the real Chávez.
I understand that many commentators want to force the parallels out of a genuine fear of what a Trump presidency might mean. However, readers should keep in mind that Trump would have to govern within the U.S.’s much stronger institutions. The checks and balances that keep the American presidency at bay will not likely be undone in a Trump administration.
By portraying Chávez as a caricature populist who rambles, insults, and provokes without merit, foreign observers are doing Venezuela a disservice. Yes, that was part of Chávez’s political persona, but it was not the most important part.
If foreign writers are going to look for a foreign doppelgänger for Trump, they are going to have to look harder. Hugo Chávez was in a league of his own.