Dr. Paul Kengor
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at American Spectator.
There’s an old joke from the Cold War. It went like this: Hardline East German communist Walter Ulbricht (who erected the Berlin Wall) died and went to hell. There, the devil gave him a choice between the socialist sector and the capitalist sector. Devoted to the end, Ulbricht stuck to the faith, saying: “I’ll go to the socialist sector.” “Good choice,” averred the devil. “Over in the capitalist sector, they’re getting the full hellfire treatment. But in the socialist sector, they’ve run out of coal.”
Say what you want of Hugo Chavez, of his tactics, of his beliefs, and (as many are doing) of perhaps where he might be right now, but this much is certain: he stuck to the faith.
Many of us were downright amazed when Chavez, in his late 50s and desperately ill from cancer, opted to go to Cuba for treatment. It was a surefire death sentence. Only the most hopelessly devoted communist would be so naïve. Loaded with vast wealth he stole from his people, Chavez effectively chose acupuncture over the 21st-century healthcare widely available anywhere in the West.
And yet, the Venezuelan dictator clung to his religion. He went to Havana. Chavez apparently gained some measure of comfort near the aging breast of his dying, beloved Fidel. He had so much in common with Castro, admiring the totalitarian’s unparalleled, unprecedented seizure of power and resources, all in the name of redistribution and “social justice.” Like Fidel, he pilfered enough riches from the ostracized affluent class to make himself one of the world’s wealthiest leaders.
As he did, he churned the propaganda, blaming his nation’s every ill on his predecessors and on the alleged criminality of the very same rich — as Fidel has done, as the left generally has done.
A few years back, my wife and I were in Washington meeting with an old friend from grad-school days, a native of Venezuela named Daria. When we introduced her to another acquaintance, she remarked with a sad smile, “I’m from Venezuela. We’re communist now.”
In Chavez’s partial defense — and this isn’t saying much — he never achieved the scales of collectivism and depths of depravity of Fidel Castro, or of the world’s really bad communists. Venezuela didn’t become Cuba or the Soviet Union. Needless to say, Hugo Chavez was no Joe Stalin — even as, remarkably, he died on the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death.
Nonetheless, like any man of the left, he had his enemy groups, and he used them to full advantage. Some of these assorted villains were flagged in a curious Washington Post obituary which headlined Chavez as a “passionate” albeit “polarizing” figure. What earned him even this slight compliment from the Post? Who knows? The same article noted that Chavez referred to the Catholic Church hierarchy as “devils in vestments.” But perhaps the Post was impressed less with Chavez’s opprobrium for the Catholic Church than his encomiums for Barack Obama.
Of course, Chavez was a big fan of Obama. He made this clear the first year of Obama’s presidency. In an extraordinary statement at the United Nations that September, Chavez sniffed, “It doesn’t smell of sulfur here anymore.” This was a swipe at former President George W. Bush. Waxing almost spiritual, Chavez mused: “It smells of something else. It smells of hope.”
Yes, even to Hugo Chavez, Barack Obama equaled hope; the theological virtue of Obama. The Venezuelan caudillo inspiringly appealed to David Axelrod’s legendary campaign slogan.
And like Obama, Chavez just as quickly jettisoned the words of hope when less-inspiring rhetoric better suited his intentions. He excelled at blaming things on the rich, on profit seekers, on greedy corporations, on nefarious jet-owners and millionaires and billionaires, on banks, on investors, and, of course, on George W. Bush. Unlike Obama, who he spoke of in angelic terms, Chavez called George W. Bush a “devil.”
Chavez often seemed to invoke the devil. Alinsky-like, Chavez constantly isolated his targets and demonized them, calling them “degenerates,” “squealing pigs,” and “counter-revolutionaries.” It was pure demagoguery.
In this, and more, Hugo Chavez was faithful to the very end. Did he really think he would be healed in Havana? Was there no other hope?
Or, in the end, maybe faith was all that Chavez had. He should have learned from millions of Cubans over the last 50-plus years: faith in Fidel leads only to destruction and death.
(Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.)