By Michael Rowan
When Venezuela began debasing institutions in the 1998 campaign of Hugo Chavez, few believed he could succeed at winning, no less totally changing Venezuela’s historic trajectory. And virtually no one believed that Chavez would be the harbinger of change for world civilization. But it’s starting to look that way.
In 1999, the populism of Chavez did not look like it could last but here we are twenty years after his election and five years after his death, grappling with the chaotic consequences of what Chavez wrought, which looks close to impossible to cure.
More surprisingly, even as Venezuela has fallen into a hurricane of inflation of one million percent for 2018, conflating economic disaster, epidemics, starvation, refugees and a stunning civilian killing rate, the world is imitating populism. Populism has elected national leaders in the USA, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Austria and Turkey, and seriously spiked in Britain, France, Germany, and even the super-stable Scandinavian countries, threatening the entire world order.
Was Chavez the Pied Piper leading the children of civilization to the cliff where they plunge merrily into the sea of happiness -- as Chavez named Cuba? How did this happen to an enlightened world?
Let’s take a look at history. This is how populism grows: A charismatic TV populist surfs a wave of a grievance against the way things are with the established order, which seriously underestimates the challenge. A populist can succeed wherever democracy exists, and democracy became the way most leaders of our time get to power. Once elected, however, the populist dispenses with transparent elections and sabotages established systems for governance, law, information, and money.
Power over government is centralized in the populist leader and his crony loyalists so that they keep it forever, even after the original populist dies. Dissenters are treated as enemies of the state.
Law is declared by the populist leader and not legislated by democratic institutions, reverting society to the tribal condition that governed humanity in darkness from time immemorial.
Media are controlled by the populist, who dictates what is true and false, loyal or treasonous, so that people get conditioned to his lies.
Finally, crony capitalism loots the state, corruption disables the economy and the central bank debases the currency. The end is near for citizens -- but not for the populists.
Democracy allows the populist to win the first election legitimately. Thereafter, control of a nation’s military, police and prosecutorial powers suffocate dissent. Then, TV and social media propaganda cement total control at least in a vocal minority base while the majority goes silent and scared into the woodwork. As the official self-enrichment continues under the guise of a sovereign state, everything collapses but one thing: the populist’s control.
That is a thumbnail history of the last 20 years in Venezuela, which reads like the decline and fall of past despots. But Venezuela’s despots are not going away, just as Zimbabwe’s didn’t. Venezuela’s despots have progeny.
Can this happen in North America? We see that where institutions of democracy, law, and freedom are more entrenched than in Venezuela, there is more push-back against the populist. But in only two years in the world’s oldest democracy, Trump has begun to erode confidence in or public support for democracy, law, truth and human rights -- significantly more than was feared or expected when he was surprisingly elected.
Likewise, the jury is out on whether Europe can survive the onslaught of populism which is driven by fears of foreign refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa who do not share European culture.
Western populism reflects grievances against rich, white, male dominance, which in the U.S. is reversed, where an old white billionaire real estate promoter has stoked the grievances of rural working-class white men who are struggling economically and feeling victimized by the success of darker-skinned immigrants and non-white minorities who are assumed to be taking privileges they don’t deserve.
Many U.S. white males have organized in cable TV and social media to load their guns for Custer’s Last Stand against digitalization, globalization and non-white newcomers who don’t belong in the land of liberty.
Trump, the ultimate showman, has convinced resentful white men who watch only Fox News that they are the true victims in America today -- and not the indigenous peoples, not the slaves or their descendants, not the poor immigrants who are knocking on America’s door of freedom, and least of all, not women who are asserting real power, equality and freedom. No, Trump says, it’s white men who have it tough.
This “reverse racism” attitude has a long history in America which needs to be understood.
Europe knows better. In the 20th century Europe experienced the horrors of Hitler and Stalin firsthand, two world wars, and the Cold War, which led to the formation of the European Union and has burnished the need for cooperation to protect progress. Whereas, one could argue, the U.S. had to be dragged into the two world wars, had to defend the world during the Cold War, and now feels it is burdened by world terrorism and would like to hide its head in the sand like an ostrich.
Very few people see the big pattern here. The big hurdle is that people of all nations understand very little history of their own country, other countries and especially the world. The ignorance may be invincible because people segregate in bubbles of social media, cable TV or neighborhoods which only serve to confirm biases about twisted history and racial stereotypes.
The ignorance of human progress in wealth and health over the last two centuries is abysmal. The direct relationship between progress and the institutionalization of democracy, law, truth and universal human rights is unknown, everywhere. That is a fact. Read FACTFULNESS, a brilliant book by Hans Rosling if you doubt the accuracy of that statement.
Ignorance gives a wide berth to populism, which rudimentarily erodes democracy, law, information and then the economy. But populists from Chavez to Trump claim they are producing the best democracy, law, truth and economy in history, which is a hoax equal to the biggest lies in modern history told by Nazis and Communists.
Today, as Venezuela is being flushed down history’s drain, Chavez’s successor is electing himself with 68% of the vote and claiming that all the plagues visiting Venezuela are someone else’s fault. But it’s too late for any redress in Venezuela because democracy, law, media and freedom were flushed down that same toilet many years ago.
Faced with the disaster in Venezuela which we know first-hand, and then the election of Trump and his impact on American institutions, the publisher of LAHT (Russ Dallen) and I asked this question: Will the U.S., Europe and the world learn in time what Venezuela has experienced about populism in the last twenty years?
It’s a complex question. We figure It would take a book to answer it, so for the last six months we’ve been writing it. The title is “CATASTROPHIC HOAX: Is Trump Doing to America What Chavez Did to Venezuela?” which will be in bookstores by January 2019. This article will give our readers a glimpse into the challenge Venezuela faced, and now we all face.Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.