A FOREIGN AFFAIR
The most notable example today of the symbiosis between certain Western intellectuals and Latin American caudillos is the love affair between American and European Idiots and Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan leader, despite his nationalist tendencies, has no qualms about citing foreigners in his speeches in order to strengthen his positions. Just witness Chávez's speech at the United Nations last September in which he praised Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance.
Likewise, in presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky has pointed to Venezuela as an example for the developing world, touting social policies that have achieved success in education and medical assistance and rescued the dignity of Venezuelans. He has also expressed admiration for the fact that "Venezuela successfully challenged the United States, and this country doesn't like challenges, much less so if they are successful."
But in actuality, Venezuela's social programs have, with help from the Cuban intelligence services, become vehicles for political regimentation and social dependence on the government. Furthermore, their effectiveness is suspect. The Centro de Documentación y Análisis Social de la Federación Venezolana de Maestros, a teachers' union think tank, reported in 2006 that 80 percent of Venezuela's households have difficulty covering the cost of food -- the same proportion as when Chávez came to power in 1999, and when the price of oil was one third the price it is today. As for the dignity of the people, the real story is that there have been 10,000 homicides per year in Venezuela since Chávez became president, giving the country the highest per-capita murder rate in the world.
Another nation that certain American opinion leaders have a soft spot for is Cuba. In 2003, Fidel Castro's regime executed three young refugees for hijacking a boat and trying to escape from the island. Castro also sent 75 democratic activists to prison for lending banned books. In response, James Petras, a longtime sociology professor at the State University of New York's Binghamton University, wrote an article titled "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights." In his essay, which was reprinted by various left-wing publications around the world, he defended Havana by arguing that the victims had been in the service of the United States government.
Noted Castro sympathizer Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, a French newspaper that champions every unsavory cause coming out of the Third World, maintains that globalization has made Latin America poorer in recent years. In fact, poverty has been modestly reduced in the past five years. Globalization has given Latin American governments so much revenue from the sale of commodities and from the taxes paid by foreign investors that they have handed out cash subsidies to the poor -- hardly a solution to poverty in the long term.
Two decades out of date, Harold Pinter delivered a flabbergasting account of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in his 2005 Nobel lecture. Perhaps thinking that a vindicatory look at the populists of the past might help the populists of today, he said that the Sandinistas had "set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society," and that there was "no record of torture" or of "systematic or official military brutality" under Daniel Ortega's government in the 1980s. One wonders, then, why the Sandinistas were thrown out of power by the people of Nicaragua in the 1990 elections. Or why the voters kept them out of power for nearly two decades -- until Ortega became a political transvestite, declaring himself a supporter of the market economy. As for the denial of Sandinista atrocities, Pinter would do well to remember the 1981 massacre of Miskito Indians on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. Under the guise of a literacy campaign, the Sandinistas, with the help of their Cuban cadres, tried to indoctrinate the Miskitos with Marxist ideology. But the independent-minded Indians refused to accept Sandinista control. Accusing them of supporting opposition groups based in Honduras, Ortega's men killed as many as 50 Miskitos, imprisoned hundreds, and forcibly relocated many more. The Nobel laureate should also remember that his hero Ortega became a capitalist millionaire thanks to the distribution of government assets and confiscated property that the Sandinista leaders split among themselves after losing the 1990 elections.
The current enthusiasm with Latin American populism extends to correspondents for major news outlets. Take, for instance, some stories filed by the Washington Post's Juan Forero. He is more balanced and informed than the luminaries mentioned above, but, from time to time, he betrays an uncanny enthusiasm for populism of the kind that is sweeping the region. In a recent article on Chávez’s foreign largesse, he and coauthor Peter S. Goodman paint a generally positive picture of the way in which Chávez is helping some countries rid themselves of the strictures imposed by U.S.-backed multilateral agencies by providing them with enough cash to pay off their debts. Supporters of this policy were quoted favorably and no mention was made of the fact that Venezuela's oil money belongs to the Venezuelan people, not to foreign governments or entities allied with Chávez, or that those subsidies have political strings attached. Note Argentine President Néstor Kirchner's attack against the United States and his praise of Chávez during a recent visit to the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz, in return for Chávez's commitment to back yet another bond issue on Argentina’s behalf.