Imagem Lee Siegel
Lee Siegel
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Missing the enemies

NEW JERSEY - The coverage in the mainstream American media of Hugo Chavez's death is fairly extraordinary. He was the "last caudillo," a "dictator," a starry-eyed disciple of Fidel, an unreliable, clownish, destabilizing force on the world stage. Then, two paragraphs later, you read that he changed the lives of millions of impoverished Venezuelans, that he truly cared about the poor, that the Venezuela he left is far better than the Venezuela he inherited. And then it is back to the litany of Chavez's grievous flaws: the petrodollars that made it possible for him to trick the people into thinking he was behind them, the petrodollars he squandered, the cronyism, the autocratic nature of his regime, and on and on.

Lee Siegel,

10 de março de 2013 | 02h00

After mostly negative coverage of Chavez, the New York Times even published on its Op-ed page, as if in balanced compensation, a careful, dignified, frankly admiring essay by Lula praising Chavez's concrete accomplishments. And perhaps the very fact of Lula writing the essay was a pointed reminder that Brazil has, miraculously, lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty, yet without Chavez's authoritarian antics, without the total alienation of important segments of society.

I myself don't like autocrats, and Chavez's seeming travesty of democracy made me uncomfortable. Yet so much of what passed for democracy in Venezuela was a rotten edifice of bribery and corruption, so any "travesty" of this fake democracy couldn't have been all bad. I admired Chavez. He had heart, and high feeling, and true indignation and passion. I especially enjoyed his creative derision of George W. Bush. Nor did I mind his anti-Americanism, which seemed to me perfectly appropriate after what the American media likes to call the United States' "tacit" support of the attempt by right-wing businessmen and others to overthrow Chavez in 2002. (Who really knows how "tacit" America's support was?) I am proud of many things about the United States, but the country's bloody involvement in Latin American affairs still makes me ashamed. America may not have installed a genocidal junta in Venezuela, as it did in some other Latin American countries, but until Venezuela nationalized its oil industry in 1973, America happily plundered the country's only valuable exportable resource, propping up a dictatorial regime in Venezuela for decades in the early part of the last century.

Chavez, it seems to me, was not a caudillo, or a dictator, or a "soft" dictator, or anything of the kind. He was Chavez, and he was the unique creation of a unique historical moment. His advent on the world stage occurred at at time of crumbling old socio-economic-political-cultural structures that have yet to be replaced by anything definite. Any attempt at ideology is going to end in a mush of principles and postures. So Chavez's hatred of America ran parallel to the ongoing business he did with America; his socialism, such as it was, existed alongside a crony capitalism; his rhetoric may have been violent but his regime did not engage in anything like large-scale violent repression. Chavez's authoritianism was closer to that of old-time Chicago's Mayor Daley than to the Latin American dictators of yore.

But there is a nostagia in the American press for the good old days of clear threats from the Soviet Union, from North Vietnam, from Cuba, from leftist regimes in Latin America. Just days before Chavez died, the airwaves here were full of North Korea's threat to wage war on South Korea once again, and its insinuation that its nuclear missiles could reach American soil. This empty bluster was reported almost lovingly by the media here, particularly by the internet news sites, which must report news of an impending daily apocalypse to attract the necessary page-views.

Even the weather is now reported as if it were a hostile foreign power. It used to be that only hurricanes received names. Then it was tropical storms that got names. Now it is that mild, almost innocent weather system known as the "winter storm" that gets personified. Lacking the communist threat, we turn snowflakes into invading troops. Che, or Fidel, or Khruschev or Brezhnev used to be the face of the evil that threatened the American way of life. Now it is "Winter Storm Nemo." Run for your shovels, the snowdrifts are coming!

I understand the nostalgia for a unifying enemy. A few years after the Cuban missile crisis, when I was six, I fell in love (if you can call it that) with a little Cuban girl who lived in the same garden-apartment complex as my parents and me. Her parents had fled Cuba after the revolution and she lived in fear, she told me, of the apartment-complex's Cuban superintendent, Garcia. He was an agent of Fidel, she explained, her eyes wide with terror, and he was trying to find a way to send her and her family back to Cuba. I immediately took on the job of protector and would seek out places for us to hide from Garcia-usually in the basement, the entrance to which had a black and yellow sign over it saying "bomb shelter," a sign that you saw everywhere then during the Cold War. She had long brown hair and delicate skin, and one day, after we had been playing outside, she ran her fingers down her face, making streaks of dirt on her beautiful skin. I saw them as emblems of her need, and her helplessness in the face of the monstrous Garcia. To this day, the image of her face streaked with dirt-I have forgotten her name-is one of my most powerful childhood memories. The thought of being in that bomb shelter with her, away from her persecutor, warm in our refuge, my legs just touching hers, the smell of the earth rising from our hands, still enchants and mystifies me.

Societies have their collective nostalgia, too, of course. I understand the need to portray Chavez as one of America's classic enemies, as a true nemesis that has perhaps left in his wake a (marvelously) dangerous situation that will require America's constant vigilance. But just as my life- and, I hope, the life of that little Cuban girl-has gone on, I hope that we can stop creating enemies and dangers where there are none. And when the true danger shows itself, I hope that we will not be as romantic in confronting it as we are now in yearning for it.

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