One of the problems that we find when trying to explain chavismo is the lack of historical precedent. Thus we make it easy for the always available supporters of thug regimes to defend their model until it is too late and heavy damage is done. It seems that all authoritarian regimes start in different ways, in original ways, so as to confuse the people witnessing their birth and to lull them into some sense of false security until someday they end up into some authoritarian scheme at best, totalitarian at worst.
This problem vexed me. For example although I see clearly the Castro connection, chavistas will reply to me that the press is free. Indeed, Castro did not wait for 6 years until putting the first restrictions on the press. Others will point out that it is not a right wing dictatorship because stadiums have not been filled up with political opponents on their way to be shot. True, even though we can already count dozens of victims of political violence in Venezuela. However spread over time as they are, the effect is a general numbing and wishful thinking that it is only "errors".
But I have strated to think about an example which at first might seem outlandish but up and close might seem quite like the chavista adventure. I am referring to the period in French history called the Second Empire, that lasted from 1851 (1852) until 1870 when the ignominious defeat of Sedan saw the return of the Republic in its third incarnation. Before I make my comparison, I need to stress one thing: I am comparing systems that are 1 and a half century apart, before concepts such as fascism or communism could even been visualized (though colonial powers had proven already the proclivity for genocides and diverse other violent forms).
France's second empire
In 1848 a revolution overthrew the last French king and proclaimed the Second Republic. A new constitution promptly established a strong presidential system and elected the nephew of the great national hero of the day, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, a.k.a. Napoleon III. The constitution had a great flaw in such days of personal politics, it did not preview reelection and Charles Louis was an ambitious man who had already conspired against the constitutional monarchy. By 1851 he had garnered enough strength to make a coup d'état and in 1852 he reestablished the French Empire.
His rule was economically successful as he allowed a certain economic laissez faire, and closed his eyes on major financial "affairs". His regime was despised from the start by many French intellectuals who even took the road of exile on their own until his fall (Victor Hugo). If the regime was authoritarian in nature, it did manage to avoid the stronger versions of authoritarianism seen in Russia, for example. If prosperity does explain in part the calm of the population, the opposition was allowed to have at least a distant voice. Rigged elections took place every 6 years and the Republican opposition grew continuously until in 1869 the regime had to start "opening". But the Franco-Prussian war showed that it had all been a sand castle, that the French Army was only there to sustain the regime and not a real defense force. The price of the complacent silence of France's bourgeoisie was the loss of Alsace Lorraine, and eventually the first World War.
Yet, the regime produced quite a few things that still characterize France today. Efficient railroad system, the Paris Grand Boulevards, the party air of Paris who eventually gave the Belle Epoque and saw all the European crowns and American heiress come to Paris to meet. Actually, the regime, long reviled by French intellectuals whose only image of the regime was the Zola novels, has found in recent decades a less severe judgement, just as the Napoleon (I) experiment seems less glorious to my generation than what it was to previous ones.
Napoleon III and Chavez
Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and Hugo Chavez Frias do share some strange similarities, even in their intellectual background. Both came from problematic homes who left a mark on them. Both were raised in a populist background, tilting some to the left, according to what that meant in their respective eras. Both had heroes from the past who they vowed to emulate, Napoleon for one, Bolivar for the other. Both never quite understood the political treatises that they read and both eventually made up a hash of ideas that they presented as some form of intellectual and political program. None of them was a really authoritarian until their nincompoop ideas and policies confronted them with an opposition.
Both had a long history as conspirators against the legal and legitimate power in place. Both tried coups and both ended up in jail (though Napoleon escaped and lived in England before coming back in 1848). Both reached power by populist and popular promises. Charles Louis Napoleon promised to reestablish the universal voting rights, and democracy by extension, that the Second Republic assembly had unwisely curtailed. Hugo Rafael promised a new constitution that would solve all of the lower classes problems and open "true participative democracy".
When these adventurers reached power both were unsatisfied with the institutions they found and both changed the existing constitution (Napoleon after the 1851 coup). Both created a constitution that gave maximum authority to the executive. Both used that authority to put their people in all offices of the state, disregarding ability and precedent. In this Napoleon was different as he was able to attract some of the talent of the time and at least coexist with a portion of the intellectual class that ignored politics. Probably in those days there was still a sense of inevitability to non democratic rule and thus many were more willing to put up with authoritarian regimes than today. And authoritarian regimes then were not as threatened by the media as today: probably they felt less threatened and were more "forgiving".
Once in office their similarities do not stop, though their differences accentuate. Both solved political problems through plebiscitary votes, not well thoughts referendum. Both tried to rig elections to their advantage in the most shameless way, but both did get the assent of their neighbors to the result and the legitimacy. Both tried foreign adventures to bolster their sagging political fortunes. Napoleon meddled in Italy until he had to go to war. He also invaded Mexico where he had no business at all. Chavez is making a career in attacking the US wherever he can and he is widely suspected to sponsor all sorts of irregular groups where he has no business (Bolivia, e.g.). Both had no problem in presenting themselves as the only true patriots and thus discredit anyone else that would oppose them as traitors. Both relied on the Army to secure power although Napoleon was from the civilian sector (though of course his uncle legend compensated for this "shortcoming"). Both created a business class that supposedly would replace the previous one and owe allegiance to them only. Both presided extraordinarily corrupt regimes, by the standard of their eras. But there was a difference, Napoleon was able to attract real talent and within 6 years in office France economy was booming without benefiting of any particularly cheap natural resource.
I suppose that I could keep the comparison and perhaps even speculate on which foreign adventure will eventually bring the downfall of chavismo. Or perhaps I could wonder why the Second Empire eventually found the way to reform, perhaps too late, whereas chavismo seems on the way to complete authoritarianism or worse. But the exercise is futile, if interesting.
It remains that chavismo is closer to the diverse strains of "bonapartism" than properly leftist hash that he uses now the way Napoleon used restoration of ancient glory and religious values. Bonapartism has flourished here and there, such as in France (Napoleon III or its milder versions of Boulanger or De Gaulle and Gaullism) or in Argentina with Peron or some early stages of fascism such as the first years of Mussolini until eventually he fixed the concept of fascism in our culture. But in the late XX century communism has become a religion of sorts inspiring diverse movements even though the Berlin Wall has collapsed. Hence its "old values" feel for the masses. It seems that the muscled and more efficient form of populism that is represented in bonapartism was in a way the natural inclination of Chavez; but the realpolitik of our times is making him move to the archaic left and likely even further in the road of authoritarianism and perhaps XXI century fascistocommunism. We shall find out soon enough. At least now we know why Chirac seems to like Chavez so much.
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I have been adding new features on occasion to the blog, from ghost writers to guest letters. Today I am starting to dedicate posts to people, on occasion that is, and when they have a general theme like today. Considering this, I do dedicate this post to Francisco Toro, a.k.a. Quico. I am sure that he will understand why.