I recently finished reading the massive biography “Hugo!” The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution by Bart Jones. The immeasurable value of this book lies in its detailed biographical sketch of one the twenty-first century’s most polarizing figures in Latin America. The demonization of Chavez in current mainstream media news cycles makes “Hugo!” an immense antidote in this regard. The high drama of the Bolivarian Revolution is the book’s second best contribution to the reader. However, this post is not a review of the book. Rather, while reading “Hugo!” and learning about the Venezuelan President’s life, I saw innumerable similarities between Hugo Chavez and a controversial South American President of the twentieth century; Argentina’s Juan Peron. No historical analogies nor comparisons are perfectly aligned, but the parallels between the political lives of these two men are quite striking.
Though Hugo Chavez has been compared to socialist icons such as Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, his military background places him squarely with Juan Peron. Castro was a lawyer turned guerrilla fighter and Allende was a career parliamentarian while Chavez and Peron own their pre-political careers to the military. Once in power, neither men sought to overtly militarize their societies, however. With Chavez, such a background was cause for caution for many on the left who were weary in the wake of repressive military dictatorships that gripped much of Latin America in the 1970’s. However, the institution of the military historically in South America is not monolithic. The Venezuelan military Chavez found himself in was undergoing reconstruction in the form of the Andres Bello Plan. Chavez and other new cadets at the time did not study at the School of the Americas. The Venezuelan military was comprised much more so of various social classes through its various ranks.
On the other side of the historical spectrum, Juan Peron had risen to become a Colonel in the Argentinian military. Institutionally the military in Argentina was producing repression long before the coup of 1976. The military that Peron was a member of, before his own ascension to power, toppled a presidency and a constitution in a 1943 coup. The military men in the new government agreed upon silencing political unrest by outlawing Communist associations and persecuting unions. However, comparatively speaking, Juan Peron’s career in the military did not produce a figure on the dictatorial scale of Cold War School of the Americas Generals Ogania and Videla.
Formative Military Experiences
As a young Hugo Chavez was training in the Venezuelan military academy, he became inspired first hand by the Peruvian military regime of Juan Velasco. The political program of Velasco’s regime centered around Plan Inca which included nationalizations of foreign oil companies, land reform, and normalized relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Velasco’s Plan Inca was not akin to the horrific military regimes that gripped the southern cone during Chavez’s lifetime. The influence of this Peruvian social experiment is evident in the governance of Hugo Chavez today.
Juan Peron, like Hugo Chavez, had formative experiences abroad as a young man in the military. European influences of the mid-thirties contributed to Peron’s overall world view. He was present in Spain during the time of their civil war. He witnessed the deep ideological rifts that fueled that conflict. In Il Duce’s Italy, Peron saw elements of a corporatist vehicle of social control that he was certainly attracted to. Combined together, Peron’s travels to Spain and Italy explains in part the kind of paternalistic populist society he sought to construct in Argentina; a corporatist structure that attempted to ally major sectors of society such as labor, capital, the military and the church.
Both Chavez and Peron did not solely have formative experiences abroad in the military. The two men share between them formative experiences in their respective mother countries. Though nuanced differentiations were made in terms of the militaries Chavez and Peron belonged to, both institutions were never bereft of their repressive roles in society. Two historical instances of brutal military repression transformed the lives of both men respectively.
For Peron, one the earliest formative domestic events in his life was the tragic week, or la semana tragica, of 1919. Social unrest and labor strikes were ever increasing in the year of 1919 as a young Juan Peron was in the Argentine military. Hipolito Yrigoyen’s Radical government deployed the military to violently repress striking metalworkers killing over one hundred protesters. Rather than inculcating a loathing hatred of the social class he was ordered to control by force, the experience left him resenting the mismanagement of society by the ruling government. He was frustrated with the lack of control that ordered what he did in terms of repressing social rioting in Buenos Aires. Following la semana tragica, Yrigoyen’s government resorted to repression via a right-wing paramilitary organization, The Patriotic League, marking a tragic policy precedent that would sadly reoccur throughout Argentina’s history. The tragic week also marked a change in the short-term political destiny of Argentina away from the Radical governments, through the infamous decade of the 1930’s, until a military coup would ultimately birth the political career of Juan Peron in 1943.
Chavez, already conflicted by counter-insurgency assignments in Venezuela’s rural countryside, was also transformed by a terrible military massacre. After coming to power in 1988, President Carlos Andres Perez announced a shock economic program for Venezuela in line with International Monetary Fund desires. Social rioting from Venezuela’s impoverished broke out as Perez ordered the military into the streets to repress the situation. What ensued was one of the worst massacres in late 20th century Latin American history as nearly 400 people were killed indiscriminately. Already conspiring within the military ranks, the Caracazo had marked a turning point in Chavez’s life. The social instabilities caused by rampant inequalities coupled with the violent repression of the military deepened Chavez’s resolve to launch a coup against Perez. And as it would turn out, exactly ten years after the episode, Chavez, in power, initiated Plan Bolivar where the military was sent out on a social mission to poor communities as a historical atonement.
Prison, Popularity, and the Presidency
The similarity between Chavez and Peron’s political biographies continue in prison sentences which increased their respective popularities prior to successful presidential bids. As Peron’s influence soared among the working class through his position of Secretariat of Labor in the new government that came to power in 1943, the army forced him to resign two years later. He was arrested and imprisoned before another historical event would transpire. Thousands of protesters descended to the Plaza de Mayo on October 17th, 1945 to demand the release of a man they put their political faith in. Popular pressure forced the army to free Peron and he soon became a candidate for the presidency. In the course of his successful campaign, an anti-Peronist U.S. ambassador to Argentina, Spruille Braden, accused Peron of being a Nazi agent, only to stir nationalism in a backfire that helped Peron take the presidency in 1946.
After Hugo Chavez and his fellow conspirators failed to oust President Perez in a 1992 coup, the Lieutenant Colonel was imprisoned. Though defeated, the coup attempt and subsequent jail sentence for Chavez immensely increased his popularity. Granted air time, Chavez gave a famous speech where he stated that the rebels failed their objective por ahora, or for now. Much like Peron, Chavez’s political supporters demanded that he be released from prison. Fearing that the man was more dangerous incarcerated than liberated, authorities finally released Chavez after two years in prison. Unlike Peron, it would take five years before a freed Chavez would seek his nation’s highest office. Like Peron, once he did, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Michael Skol, weighed in on the race calling Chavez terroristic. Skol’s comments stroked the flames of nationalism to Chavez’s favor as he prevailed in presidential elections.
The Economics of Justicialismo and Socialism of the 21st Century
As Peron’s governing philosophy of Justicialismo (which has no discernable English translation) is often misunderstood and as Chavez’s notion of Socialism in the 21st Century is an ever evolving concept, comparison of the two political ideologies is the most difficult. Though there are many shared characteristics, at this time, Chavez’s social experiment is much more identifiably leftist than Peron’s brand of South American populism. The two shared similar detractors nevertheless. Free market economists who detested the levels of state involvement in both governments saw their foundations as ones of clay based on favorable prices on the export market. With Chavez, opponents say that his popularity, cemented on oil-fueled social programs benefiting the lower social classes, will diminish should the price of oil on the export market drop. For such critics, they do have the historical example of Juan Peron to bolster their arguments.
Peron’s presidency started out with a five year economic plan that produced notable growth. Coming to power in a post-World War II global market, prices were favorable for Argentina’s exports. However, in Peron’s second presidency, the country’s exports were no longer in high demand as Peron’s second five year plan failed to adjust accordingly. A coup ensued and toppled the Peronist regime. Could this be the fate of Hugo Chavez? Currently the Venezuelan President is enjoying favorable oil prices which allow for considerable subsidization of social programs. Also, the nation enjoys what is believed to be the largest reserves of crude oil in the world. The short answer to the question is possibly, but not any time soon. A diversification of the economy is needed to avoid this simple equation.
Chavez’s rhetorical comfort with socialism, places him to the left of Peron, though the two are akin in their “neither communism nor capitalism” creedo. Chavez and Peron converge more often than not, however, when the deficiencies of radicalism in Venezuela’s new millennium ideology are readily apparent. Though Peronism has had radical leftist and free market variations, for the purposes of this comparative analysis, Peronism will be defined as the policies of Juan Peron’s first two presidencies. Economically, as stated before, Peron introduced state involvement through five year plans. As part of his corporatist structure, Peron desired to have a mixed economy with social welfare programs. With this apparatus in place, he felt he could incorporate labor and capital together. Peron certainly held labor unions that he helped shaped to his liking as a base. For a period of time, he was also able to successfully convince a sector of Argentina’s national bourgeoise that his “organized community,” and economic nationalism were in their best interests as well.
The most explicit manifestation of state involvement in Argentina’s economy during the time of Peron were nationalizations. Politically useful to his base of descamisados, Peron’s nationalizations of the railroads, telephone systems, and other industries and services helped solidify his rule. The national bourgeoise that he sought to court, enthusiastically supported the assumption of control over the British owned railroads, albeit, of course, out of self interest. Peron’s nationalizations gave him a material platform for his anti-imperialist rhetoric, but his concept of an “organized community,” did not entail more radical state interventions. Peron can never be understood as a socialist, as he never sought to socialize medicine, education and the economy fully. He never seriously challenged the concept of private property.
Hugo Chavez, on the other hand, has pledged to deepen and accelerate his nation’s path towards what he calls a socialism for the 21st century. If that is so, compared to other socialist projects of the past, the path thus far has been up to this point what Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin called “socialism at a snail’s pace.” To put things into perspective, the Bolivarian Revolution, ten years in, took a major economic step towards increased economic participation on behalf of the state when four multibillion dollar oil projects were nationalized in the form of gaining majority control from multinational corporations. Conversely, socialism in the twentieth century, in the form of Salvador Allende’s presidential campaign admonished majority control. Prior to Allende, President Eduardo Frei established majority control over copper by what he called “Chileanization.” Leftist voters wanted more and once Allende was elected, he delivered total national control of Chilean copper; which has, in the form of Caldeco, not ceased. The size and scope of Chavez’s nationalizations remain to be seen during this revolutionary intensification presidency. They will, most likely, stop well short of abolishing the institution of private property, despite detractors comparisons to Fidel Castro. As with Peron in the past, they do provide a continual platform for Chavez’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. However, some leftists, such as Douglas Bravo criticize Chavez’s economic socialist paradigm as lacking real teeth to the point of accusing him of being, in essence, a neo-liberal.
The Politics of Justicialismo and Socialism of the 21st Century
The last point of comparative analysis will focus on the political characteristics of Juan Peron and Hugo Chavez. Both men claimed that their governments marked the most radical departure of their respective nations’ oligarchic rule. Critics contend that the truth of their governances lent to the fact that rhetoric exceeded reality, but there is a grain of truth, however big or small, to their claims. Argentina before Peron was governed by the unicato of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. People of that time commonly referred to the unicato with tremendous nostalgia before the rule of “that man,” whose name could not even cross their lips. In Venezuela, Chavez continuously rails against the oligarchy that enriched themselves with lavish oil profits while the rest of the Venezuelan people toiled in poverty. His presidency has certainly severed the dominant rule of traditional elitist political classes. The rhetoric of both Chavez and Peron declared, with a certain degree of historical legitimacy though absolutely debatable to be sure, that their social experiments marked the most explicit attempt to realize a national-popular project in contrast to the status quo of oligarchic rule.
Both leaders also demonstrated charismatic personas that helped solidify an intense emotional loyalty among followers. Peron with his sleeves rolled up tried to capture the hopes of the “shirtless ones.” However, Peron’s personalist rule degenerated into marked traits of authoritarianism. During his rule, high profile political opponents were jailed or removed from their positions. The notable Argentine economist Raul Prebisch was ousted from his professorship for not lecturing on Peron’s first five year economic plan. Jorge Luis Borges was fired from his literary position and was insulting promoted to poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market. Peron’s corporatist structure also lent itself to a totalitarian implication. Peron wanted to peronize all sectors of Argentine society through his “organized community.” The tensions of the political project ripped apart and produced a coup against his government in 1955.
Western political leaders have constantly criticized Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as undemocratic. During his first presidential run, critics noted his 1992 coup attempt against President Perez as ample evidence. Western media accounts of Venezuelan society under Chavez are tremendously inaccurate. Their depictions of the state of private media and private property under his presidency are largely without merit. For their part, detractors on the left question Chavez’s democratic credentials based on the ’92 coup, his military background and his utilization of decrees. The question of Chavez’s authoritarianism remains open-ended as is the case with assessing the socialistic character of his governance. At this present time, Chavez has not shown the level of repression and authoritarianism that characterized Peron’s rule from 1946-1955. Currently, President Chavez is seeking constitutional reforms to deepen his Bolivarian Revolution. One noteworthy reform seeks to abolish term limits on the presidency. Peronism, as evidenced by Argentina’s most recent presidential election, has transcended the life of its political namesake. Can Chavismo do the same? Or is it a ‘one-man’ show? Future presidential elections and time will tell. In the end, were Chavez and Peron separated at birth? The rhetorical question has lent itself to a politically biographical comparison where many similarities and differences have made themselves apparent between the two charismatic leaders.