On Guilty Pleasures and the Right Wing

Wednesday afternoon, I blogged the following:

Bush Jong Il is off on a jaunt to Argentina in a week or two for some Latin America free trade [sic] summit in Buenos Aires. I expect some fun and games, since Hugo Chavez, my favorite South American anti-Yanqui caudillo, will also be in attendance. But if Bush cannot face Cindy Sheehan without fleeing to the hinterlands of a safe Air Force base in Colorado, I don’t suspect he will have the nerve to face Chavez either.

Which is a pity. That could be fun to watch.

One of my colleagues, an Argentine national, said Bush will be traveling with 2,000 people in tow (that is how many jumbo jets?), not including reporters (there will probably be 300 reporters — 300! — going with, a whole ‘nuther jumbo jet). It seems not only is Bush Jong Il taking his armored limo, plus the entire Imperial motorcade of two dozen vehicles, he is also taking all the water he and his inner-most retinue will need for the visit. Water! For hundreds for several days! Even Caligula drank the local water in Gaul! I suspect Caesar Potus actually has food tasters, too. I wonder who insures their lives?

Buenos Aires is not happy about this. And it shouldn’t be, either. Big demonstrations are planned. Not that Potus will ever see them, or even know they take place.

Yes, Bush actually departed for Argentina on Thursday morning, rather than “in a week or two.” I don’t have access to White House schedules anymore. In response, an agitated reader wrote:

Concerning your remarks about Hugo Chavez in the Lew Rockwell-blog :

I understand you don’t like GW Bush and his policies….I don’t like the man and what he does either…but I absolutely don’t understand why communist thug Hugo Chavez is your favorite South American anti-Yanqui caudillo?

Castro’s buddy Chavez is a violent wanna-be tyrant with no respect for “life, liberty and property”.

Your shamefull pro-Chavez remark is not only insulting Venezuelan libertarians who oppose this marxist tyrant but will also further alienate in your own country freedomloving rightwingers from your cause while gaining for you and your cause nothing.

It seems I have some ‘splainin to do.

I have no illusions about the Venezuelan president. He and his Bolivarian “revolution” are fraudulent, built on oil wealth that pays handsomely today but may not in a few years’ time. His decision to unilaterally alter contracts with international oil firms — even large, state-owned companies — could backfire badly as he makes his country an ever more difficult place to do business. The petro-welfare state he is creating will eventually bankrupt his nation and wind-up hurting the very people he claims to be helping — the poor.

Besides, for all his talk about wanting to help the poor and increase investment in Cuba, state-oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDV) has done precious little investing in Cuba, largely because there’s little oil there (so far discovered) and very few paying customers. For all his ranting about dependence on the US, PDV is still tied to Citgo. It knows where its paying customers are. Not in Havana. And not, so far, in Shanghai.

However, as the author notes, he is a “wanna-be” tyrant, and while there has been some intimidation of the press and the opposition in Venezuela, it would be unfair to call him a “communist” simply because he isn’t. (Some folks cannot tell the difference between mere managerial elitism, socialism and communism, calling central bankers “communists” and thus spinning the word, which really defines a certain kind of revolutionary and statist, into meaninglessness.) If anything, Chavez is the reincarnation of Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, another fraudulent “leftist” military revolutionary feted and toasted around the world by people who ought to know better but cannot help themselves because “revolutionaries” in uniforms are just so chic. (At least they were in the 1970s…) The main difference between Panama’s so-called revolution of the 1970s and Chavez’s “revolution” is that Chavez can at least fund his own Bolivarian socialism with oil revenues. The World Bank, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait pumped billions into the rat hole that was 1970s “revolutionary” Panama (for various “development” projects), and while Torrijos himself was only a minor-league thief, some of his cronies — like Manuel Noriega — took the opportunity to abscond with hundreds of millions of dollars of “generous foreign aid.”

(Who knows what Chavez has socked away? The fact that PDV no longer has to deposit oil revenue with the central bank means the last group of folks with any power opposed to Chavez, the country’s central bankers, no longer have any real idea how much income the government is earning from oil exports. And in a fight between an aspiring dictator and a central bank, my advice to libertarians is to get the popcorn and a comfy chair and enjoy the show from as far on the sidelines as you can!)

Besides, lots of Latin American leaders are good buddies with Fidel Castro. It’s an easy, and fairly cheap, way of poking Uncle Sam in the eye without actually having to do anything difficult or dangerous.

But Chavez is, for me, a guilty, vicarious pleasure. Watching him strut and posture is like watching a drunken idiot tweak a sleeping tiger’s tail. You admire him for both his bravery and stupidity while at the same time shaking your head, knowing it will very likely end badly — the drunken man will either lose a hand or get mauled to death. Like his predecessor Torrijos, Chavez will probably not die a natural death. Until then, however, I will enjoy whatever show he puts on. Because who knows, he may yet avoid getting bitten or mauled by the tiger, and instead die from his own drunkenness.

Now, as for “freedomloving rightwingers,” I could care less. I am not a “rightwinger” and don’t much like “rightwingers.” Being a “rightwinger” means being just another kind of authoritarian collectivist, something Latin America (and the world) has had far too much of.

Venezuela is one of those Latin American societies (like Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua and a few others) where the eternal struggle of the 19th and 20th century was mainly the battle between landed elites and mercantile elites for the control of the state. That control was important for three reasons: first, in order to privilege the winning party; second, to punish the losing party; and third, to conscript the labor of the bulk of people who neither owned land or businesses and, using the law, to rig the economy permanently against them.

Because for all their talk about protecting “property rights,” most property rights regimes have not historically assumed self-ownership. They have tended to only recognize capital and real estate as property in a legal sense, while labor — time, effort, talent and skills — is not a form of legally respected property. In fact, the businessman and the hacienda owner, with chattel slavery as the only model of labor in their minds, appear to view labor both as something he is entitled to have and something that isn’t really property until he buys it. (That would be akin to saying that the apartment I rent is not the property of my landlord, but mine because I pay rent for it.) Control of the state is essential in such an environment because how otherwise do you conscript labor and force men and women to work against their own will and interest? How else do you create one-sided contracts and enforce them? How else do you tie people to the land and keep them in debt?

It makes sense that after a time, those whose labor is taken from them by force (usually under the color of law) will eventually rebel against their masters. And it also makes sense that many will be attracted to leftist or even communist ideologies, given that the “respect for and defense of private property” is the source of so much misery in their societies. And that is, in part, where Chavez comes from, as I understand it, from that majority of Venezuelans whose property — their selves and their labor — never mattered to those who ruled the country.

Whether it matters to “Venezuelan libertarians who oppose this marxist tyrant,” I do not know. I would hope so, but I rather doubt it.

Finally, as an anti-interventionist, let me also say that I don’t really care much how Venezuelans govern themselves. Or don’t govern themselves. Americans have, for far too long, taken sides in struggles we don’t understand and have no reason involving ourselves in even if we did. Who on earth am I to criticize Hugo Chavez for his sins when George W. Bush sits in the White House (or travels with a giant retinue to South America like some medieval Muslim potentate making the Hajj)? Who am I to tell Venezuelans how to govern themselves when the state-loving, tax-grabbing, class-war spitting (just read the White House tax “reform” commission recommendations), militaristic Republicans control the US government? How, exactly, does Chavez differ from Bush (aside from shaking Castro’s hand and playing baseball with him)? And which countries, near or far, has Venezuela invaded recently? Or bombed? Or even thought bad thoughts about?

Chavez may sit atop a fairly wealthy oil state, but it’s still a very small and limited economy when compared with El Norte. His government’s budget — and his country’s economy — can still be measured in a few tens of billions, as opposed to several trillions here.

To any American interested in helping liberty in Venezuela, I say to you — don’t buy Citgo gasoline. That’s no guarantee you won’t be filling up with Venezuelan crude oil (once oil gets into the refining stream and is turned into products, it’s all pretty much the same stuff), but at least you can be more confident you aren’t helping Chavez pay for his fake “revolution,” build oil refineries in Cuba or tankers to ship crude to China.

But just remember — you and I don’t have the option of not paying for government, for subsidies, cronyism, war, oppression and death, here in the US. And why Venezuelan liberty should matter more to you than your own, I do not know.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.