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Lingering Questions for Chomsky on Venezuela

On the U.S. left, there are certain sacred cows that one should never take on directly.  For years, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has been, for the most part, sacrosanct and immune from criticism.  The underlying reasons for this kid glove treatment are hardly mysterious or difficult to surmise, particularly in light of Chávez's hostility to George Bush, the great bane of progressive folk.  Such sympathy would only increase over time, heading into high gear after the U.S.-supported coup of 2002 which was directed against Chávez. 


When the coup rapidly unraveled and ended in fiasco, with right wing forces crumbling in disarray, the Venezuelan leader was returned to power in triumph.  Later, in 2006, Chávez was greeted warmly by the New York left after he lambasted Bush in a confrontational speech delivered on the floor of the United Nations.  Speaking from the same lectern that Bush had occupied just a day before, Chávez quipped "The devil came here yesterday, right here. It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of."


When leftists want to know what to think about foreign affairs, many of them consult the views of celebrated academic Noam Chomsky.  For some time, the leftist MIT professor has provided sympathetic commentary on Venezuela, and in 2009 Chomsky even met personally with Chávez in Caracas.  It came as a slight surprise, therefore, when the professor of linguistics recently criticized Chávez for the latter's handling of a case related to María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who was arrested in December 2009 by the president's secret intelligence police.  The Venezuelan president had ordered Afiuni's arrest after the latter freed a businessman incarcerated on charges of circumventing the country's currency controls.  


In her defense, Afiuni claimed that the businessman's pretrial detention had exceeded Venezuela's legal limits, and that she was merely following United Nations protocol on such matters.  Chávez, however, was hardly convinced and proclaimed on national TV no less that the judge would have been subjected to a firing squad in a previous era.  Following her arrest, Afiuni was locked up in a women's prison where she was subjected to cruel and demeaning treatment.  Indeed, other inmates threatened to kill her and even sought to force her into sex.  Earlier this year, Afiuni was moved to house arrest after she underwent an abdominal hysterectomy at a local cancer hospital.


With much fanfare, the New York Times reported on the falling out between Chávez and his former supporter, noting that "Mr. Chomsky's willingness to press for Judge Afiuni's release shows how the president's aggressive policies toward the judiciary have stirred unease among some who are generally sympathetic to Mr. Chávez's socialist-inspired political movement."  In a telephone interview, Chomsky told the Times that he was requesting clemency for Afiuni on humanitarian grounds, and claimed that the judge had been treated very badly.  Though Afiuni's living conditions had improved somewhat, Chomsky noted, the charges against the judge were thin.  Therefore, Chomsky argued, the government should release Afiuni.


Chávez and Chomsky: A Warm History of Rapport


The recent spat between Chávez and Chomsky may put an end to a historically warm rapport.  Indeed, the Guardian of London recently wrote that "Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise for Venezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism."  In his speeches, Chávez frequently quotes Chomsky and the MIT professor has provided the Venezuelan leader with a degree of intellectual and political legitimacy.  Chávez has said that he is careful to "always" have not just one copy of Chomsky's books on hand but many.


The relationship dates back to 2006, when, during his celebrated speech at the United Nations, Chávez held up Chomsky's book entitled Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, and suggested that Americans read the work instead of "watching Superman and Batman" movies.  Speaking to the crowd, Chávez urged the audience "very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it."  Going even further, Chávez said the MIT professor's work was an "excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century."  Chávez added, "I think that the first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States, because their threat is right in their own house."  


Chomsky's book immediately rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon's best-seller list.  Speaking to the New York Times, a Borders Bookstore manager remarked "it doesn't normally happen that you get someone of the stature of Mr. Chávez holding up a book at a speech at the U.N." Book sales notwithstanding, Chomsky told the New York Times that he wouldn't describe himself as flattered.  For good measure, the academic added that he wouldn't choose to employ Chávez's harsh UN rhetoric. 


On the other hand, Chomsky added, Chávez's anger with Bush was understandable.  "The Bush administration backed a coup to overthrow his government," the professor declared. "Suppose Venezuela supported a military coup that overthrew the government of the United States? Would we think it was a joke?"  The linguist added, "I have been quite interested in his [Chávez's] policies.  Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive."


The Circumspect Professor


In the meantime, the MIT professor conducted a somewhat cautious interview with pro-Chávez supporter Eva Golinger.  During the discussion, which took place against the heated political backdrop of constitutional reform in Venezuela, Chomsky weighed his words diplomatically.  When asked, for example, whether Chávez's reform could promote genuine popular power, Chomsky said "Yes it 'could,' but it depends how it is implemented. In principle it seems to be a very powerful and persuasive conception, but everything always depends on implementation."


An academic who has historically espoused anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist views, Chomsky framed the debate over constitutional reform in anarchist terms.  "If there is really authentic popular participation in the decision-making and the free association of communities, yeah, that could be tremendously important," Chomsky remarked.  "In fact," the academic added, "that's essentially the traditional anarchist ideal. That's what was realized the only time for about a year in Spain in 1936 before it was crushed by outside forces…[so] if it can function and survive and really disperse power down to participants and their communities, it could be extremely important."  Chomsky however wondered whether the constitutional reform would be directed by the people or "fall into some sort of top-down directed pattern."


The Media Minefield


From there, Chomsky weighed into the dicey subject of media in Venezuela and the case of RCTV, a station which supported the brief coup d'etat against the Chávez regime in 2002.  When asked what he thought about the government's decision not to renew RCTV's license, Chomsky remarked frankly that he thought "it was a tactical mistake."  Moreover, the linguist added, "you need a heavy burden of proof to close down any form of media so in that sense my attitude is critical."  Further pressed by Golinger on the question of corporate ownership of the media, Chomsky declared "I think you just have to ask what's replacing it…And the population should have a voice in this, big voice, major voice…Are you really going to get popular media, for example?"


At this point, Chomsky sought to make a rhetorical point by comparing the Venezuelan experience with that of other countries.  "If there had been anything like RCTV in the United States or England or Western Europe," Chomsky remarked, "the owners and the managers would have been brought to trial and executed – In the United States executed, in Europe sent to prison permanently, right away, in 2002. You can't imagine the New York Times or CBS News supporting a military coup that overthrew the government even for a day. The reaction would be 'send them to a firing squad.'"


At the time, Chomsky probably would not have imagined that his ideas would later be used for political ends.  In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Chávez defended his democratic credentials, remarking that "no television channel has been closed despite the fact that in many cases the television channels supported a coup d'etat.  Noam Chomsky ... was asked in an interview what would happen if Fox News or CNN had supported a coup against a president. Chomsky replied that not only would those channels have been closed, but their owners would have been sent to the electric chair."


The Political Role of the Intellectual


In Latin America, there has been a long time history of well known writers developing rapport with leftist leaders.  Take, for example, the case of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who established a friendship with Fidel Castro.  On the occasion of Fidel's eightieth birthday, Márquez wrote this rather fawning [and that is putting it mildly] piece about the Cuban leader.  Then there's the case of English writer Graham Greene, who was invited to Panama by leftist dictator Omar Torrijos during the 1970s.  When the Panamanian later died in a plane crash, Greene penned a friendly homage to his idol entitled Getting to Know the General. "I have never lost as good a friend as Omar Torrijos," Greene later noted, referring to the man who he had unabashedly "grown to love."


The Chávez-Chomsky relationship, such as it is, doesn't go nearly as far as these earlier questionable dealings.  Yet, writes an unnamed editorial board member of El Libertario, an anarchist paper based in Caracas, "it would appear that Chávez has taken advantage of Chomsky…to gain intellectual respectability."  As for Chomsky, the El Libertario member adds that the MIT professor and many leftists from the U.S. "concentrate so much on American imperialism that they wind up glossing over and even excusing other forms of oppression and injustice that can be equally terrible" [in an e-mail the individual --- let's just call the person X --- explained candidly "I'm not going to give my name because the aggressive and intimidating policies of the Venezuelan government toward those who express dissident opinions are well known"].


Hedging and Hawing


While it might be a stretch to say that Chomsky has ever "stepped over the line," another interview granted by the MIT professor raises eyebrows.  Commenting on Chávez's enabling law and term extensions, Chomsky remarked "well, those laws were passed by the parliament…I don't like those laws myself. How they turn out depends on popular pressures. They could be steps towards authoritarianism. They could be steps towards implementing constructive programs.  It's not for us to say, it's for the Venezuelan people to say, and we know their opinion very well [my italics]."


Here Chomsky is confoundingly frustrating.  At first, the academic expresses displeasure at Chávez's measures, but then seems to backtrack and seemingly implies that gringoes don't have the right to express an opinion.  While such a political tactic is somewhat common amongst the Stalinist left, it's not as frequent within anarchist circles which Chomsky claims to be a part of. 


Not surprisingly, Chomsky has wrankled some anarchists in Venezuela who had hoped that the MIT professor would exhibit more of an independent streak.  However, El Libertario claims that Chomsky was always "rather discreet with regards to the growing authoritarianism of the Sandinistas during their turn in power in the 80's in Nicaragua and the Castro dictatorship during several decades. And this is so in spite of the fact that among the victims of the latter are many who shared a lot with the militant pro-Cuban anti-imperialists of Latin America."


Chomsky's Trip to Caracas


Though careful to come off as somewhat circumspect when discussing the Bolivarian Revolution, Chomsky let it be known that he was interested in going to Venezuela and would be "happy to meet" with Chávez. The Venezuelan leader for his part announced on state television that "Chomsky is soon coming here. We are communicating through common friends."  In the meantime, Chomsky participated in an MIT forum sponsored by the Venezuelan Consulates of Boston and New York which focused on the need for greater grassroots democracy.  Perhaps somewhat iconoclastically in light of his anarchist penchant, Chomsky stressed the need for the state to play a greater role in fostering new economic and social models.  At the end of the talk, Chomsky was presented with the "Order of Popular Power" from a former Venezuelan mayor.


At long last, the meeting between Chomsky and Chávez took place in 2009 when Chomsky traveled to Caracas.  During their visit, the two discussed hemispheric politics during a nationally televised forum.  Hoping to flatter his guest, Chávez remarked [in a reference to Chomsky's book] "hegemony or survival; we opt for survival."  Lauding the MIT professor, the Venezuelan compared Chomsky's arguments to those advanced by German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, author of Socialism or Barbarism. 


Laying it on a bit thick, Chávez heralded Chomsky as "one of the greatest defenders of peace, one of the greatest pioneers of a better world."  Addressing Chomsky at the gates of the Miraflores presidential palace, Chávez continued with the love-fest and remarked that his guest was "one of the most assertive intellectuals in the struggle against the elite which governs the United States."  Finally, the Venezuelan leader wished Chomsky a long life so that he might "continue to produce those marvelous ideas which nourish those who struggle against imperial hegemony and the capitalist model."


In a video posted to you tube, Chomsky looks a little awkward and uncomfortable as he stands next to Chávez.  After the Venezuelan finishes his remarks, the professor declares "What's so exciting about coming to Venezuela is that I can see how a better word is being created and speak to the person who's inspired it."  Chomsky then seems to force a smile and shakes Chávez's hand.


Looking back on the Chomsky/Chávez meeting, X of El Libertario is somewhat critical.  "Chomsky's comments are so favorable to Chávez and his government that they have been widely circulated by official propaganda," X remarks. "On repeated occasions in the past, we have sought to communicate with Chomsky to inform him of our points of view, but we were met with silence."


X adds, "as far as Chomsky's trip to Venezuela…he did not express any interest in meeting with us.  We know he has gone to other places in Latin America (like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico), and that once there he has taken part in activities that were either organized by anarchists or where anarchists were present.  But even in those cases, Chomsky concentrated on advancing his critique of U.S. imperialism while avoiding complicated issues like his support for Chávez."


The Guardian Controversy


In the wake of Chomsky's visit, Chávez continued to court the MIT linguist.  Just earlier this year, in fact, the Venezuelan leader said he'd like Washington to name Chomsky as U.S. ambassador to Caracas no less.  Whatever good will might have existed, however, was put into some doubt over the Afiuni affair.  Speaking to the Guardian, Chomsky said "concentration of executive power, unless it's very temporary and for specific circumstances such as fighting world war two, is an assault on democracy. You can debate whether [Venezuela's] circumstances require it: internal circumstances and the external threat of attack, that's a legitimate debate. But my own judgment in that debate is that it does not." 


In a letter, Chomsky stated that judge Afiuni had suffered enough and that Chávez had intimidated the judicial system.  In another rebuke to the Venezuelan leader, Chomsky criticized Chávez for adopting enabling powers to go around the National Assembly.  "Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo [authoritarianism] and it has to be guarded against," Chomsky wrote.  "Whether it's over too far in that direction in Venezuela I'm not sure, but I think perhaps it is. A trend has developed towards the centralisation of power in the executive which I don't think is a healthy development."


At this point, the whole controversy might have died down but subsequent coverage of the affair has led to even more questions.  In an article posted to the pro-Chávez web site aporrea, Golinger claims to have conversed with Chomsky over the Afiuni imbroglio.  Muddying the waters, aporrea quotes Golinger as saying that Chomsky was "victimized" by the Carr Center for human rights policy at Harvard University, an entity linked to the United States Agency for International Development.  According to aporrea, it was the Carr Center, and its director Leonardo Vivas, that persuaded Chomsky to take up the Afiuni case in the first place. 


The Old "Bait and Switch"


Complicating matters yet further, Chomsky is quoted as saying that the piece in the Guardian was "deceptive."  In an e-mail, Chomsky noted to aporrea that the Guardian, a rather left paper from England to begin with, had omitted crucial points mentioned during his interview which served as the later basis for the article.  Chiming in, Golinger says that Chomsky was victimized by the media establishment.  "Nothing escapes media manipulation!" she exclaims.


What seems to have raised the professor's ire?  In the original article, the professor makes a rather tangential comparison between the U.S. and Venezuelan judicial systems.  After mentioning Chomsky's support for Afiuni, the Guardian notes that the professor  "remains fiercely critical of the U.S., which he said had tortured Bradley Manning, alleged source of the diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks, and continued to wage a 'vicious, unremitting' campaign against Venezuela."


After Chomsky protested the Guardian's coverage, the paper opted to print the entire interview online.  In the original version, the professor goes into the U.S.-Venezuela comparison in more depth.  "It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial," Chomsky says.  "And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened."


Continuing, the professor noted, "Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss."


Going yet further in the aporrea article, Chomsky claims that Manning has been subjected to worse conditions than Afiuni.  Perhaps, but after reviewing both pieces in the Guardian as well as the aporrea article, one wonders what Chomsky is so upset about.  What is so relevant about Bradley Manning, and why can't Chomsky bear to mention Venezuela on its own terms without bringing the United States into the picture?  Apparently, there is something in Chomsky's DNA which prevents him from discussing Latin America outside of the context of U.S. imperialism.  Thus, everything which transpires politically in the region must be compared with Washington's actions.  It's a familiar game of "bait and switch" which is common to the Stalinist left, a constituency which Chomsky ironically claims to abhor.   


For a Venezuelan anarchist perspective on this controversy, I caught up with X.  "Without a doubt," comments the member of El Libertario, "prison is hell wherever you go, but with all certainty and through direct evidence one can say that Venezuelan prisons are worse than what one can ever imagine."  It is ironic, X adds, that Chomsky is muddying the waters at the precise moment when prison conditions in his country are being exposed, for example at the infamous "El Rodeo" facility.


Venezuela in the Post-Chávez Future


Though Chomsky is something of a Johnny-come-lately, waiting until fairly recently to issue critical statements of Venezuela, the linguist has no doubt shaken up the debate in the U.S. about the course of the leftist "Pink Tide" in Latin America.  Still, there are confounding signs that Chomsky still views events outside of the U.S. through an outmoded leftist framework. 


For clues as to the professor's thinking, consult the original Guardian interview.  At one point, Chomsky says that the left may be reluctant to criticize Venezuela because the country has come under attack by the United States and the mainstream media.  "I think it's natural," the academic adds, "that the leftwing commentators won't want to join in it." 


Yet here, Chomsky seems to be abdicating any kind of critical self-reflection or rigorous analysis, characteristics which the linguist presumably regards highly and has attempted to encourage as an educator.  Put simply, one need not agree with Fox News and its right wing spin machine on Venezuela to bring independent judgment to bear on world events.


Moving to the future, and particularly in light of Chávez's recent debilitating illness, one wonders how Chomsky may view his role far afield.  Even if the Venezuelan leader manages to overcome cancer, there is no guarantee he will win reelection in 2012.  Indeed, if Chávez's condition worsens much of the Venezuelan electorate may believe that a vote for his populist style of leadership is too risky.  Yet, because Chávez has never demonstrated much of an interest in grooming a successor, a big question mark now hangs over the fate of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution.


In the event that Chávez vanishes from the scene, either for health reasons or a drubbing at the polls, Venezuela will have to deepen the process of social transformation which has been under way for some time.  It is here where Chomsky might be able to map out his vision for grassroots democracy more succinctly.  What anti-authoritarian measures would Chomsky like to see and how should they be advanced?  How should Venezuela seek to distinguish itself from rising star Brazil, which may rival the U.S. for regional hegemony in the not too distant future?  What are Chomsky's specific recommendations for South American integration and what types of international anti-imperialist initiatives would be most advisable?  How can South American leftist nations break out of the extractivist trap and move toward more equitable economic arrangements?  If Chomsky, a North American, believes he has a right to express views on such weighty matters, then now would be a good time to speak up.

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