Friday 17 August 2007

Pilgerian rhetoric avoids hard questions about Chavez

Jon Pilger doesn't tell us what he think of Hugo Chavez' Castro-esque attempt to become president for life, in his defence of the Venezuelan leader in today's Guardian. Nor does he address his hero's recent attempt to ban foreigners who dared to criticise his leadership. He does, however, make passing reference to Chavez' censorship of the media, but in a way that deploys some familiar rhetorical tricks in order to evade the real issue.

The key tactic is to damn those who criticise Chavez by associating them with the bogeyman of US neoconservatism: what Pilger labels 'the old Iran-Contra death squad gang, back in power under Bush'. Never mind that the closure of RCTV was also condemned by neutral human rights organisations: the fact that the US has joined in the criticism somehow makes that criticism illegitimate. Another tactic is to suggest that those who were censored were somehow undeserving of their freedom of expression: they are an elite who 'remind me of white South Africans'. We've seen this argument used before in relation to Venezuela by Richard Gott, and with regard to Turkey's so-called 'secular elite' by Jonathan Steele. Pilger also suggests that RCTV abused its freedom to stir up opinion against Chavez, so what did they expect?

A third tactic, and one that as a long-term supporter of social justice in Latin America I find particularly objectionable, is to cover Chavez' autocratic regime in glory by associating it with Allende's short-lived government in Chile and with such mythic figures of the Left as the murdered singer Victor Jara. But Venezuela in 2007 is not Chile in 1973, and Chavez with his long-winded, self-congratulatory speeches and his alliance with the reactionary theocrat Ahmadinejad, is no Salvador Allende.

Of course, the purpose of these rhetorical tactics is to enable Pilger, like his fellow Chavez groupies Richard Gott and Tariq Ali, to avoid responding directly to the widespread criticisms of their idol. I'm prepared to accept that some of Chavez' reforms have made a material difference to the poorest in Venezuela, just as it's undeniable that Castro's regime in Cuba has managed to provide something like universal health care there. But surely the history of left-wing regimes - from Stalin to Castro via Mao and Kim il-Sung - is that socialism without liberty and democracy soon or later becomes a deformed and oppressive caricature.

Does Pilger think that censorship of the media, curtailing opposition opinion and centralising power in a single leader and political party are compatible with democratic socialism, or not? I think we should be told.

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