Unlike some on the left, I wasn’t a great fan of Hugo Chávez, but the bile directed at El Commandante from the right is revealing. True, he said some vile things – being the sort of politician who got carried away with his own rhetoric and self-importance. He supported Mugabe, but so did South Africa. He backed the Assad régime in Syria (‘how could we not?’ he said) but so has China (and, until quite recently, America). But we’re very happy to do business with Jacob Zuma and President Hu.
Chávez’s regime was increasingly authoritarian, but he never quite became a dictator. Democracy in Venezuela was deeply flawed but so is democracy in Russia and Italy. Chavez’s Venezuela is less repressive than a host of regimes that right wingers tacitly support with trade and arms – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, for example, and may be no worse than Victor Orbán’s new regime in Hungary, a European Union country. His policies failed to avert economic crisis, but so have George Osborne’s. And Chavez got worse the longer he stayed in power, like most other politicians. So why the special grade of high-octane hatred for Hugo Chávez?
It’s partly because he thumbed his nose at the Americans and at neo-cons in general, partly because his insult to George Bush at the UN – ‘Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. And it still smells of sulphur today’ – lingers so long in the memory, and it’s partly because of his audacious cheek – the childish way he seemed to revel in winding his opponents up by cosying up to their enemies and flaunting old fashioned Stalinist language.
But most of all it’s because Chávez did something unusual in the developing world. He took his country’s unusual endowment of natural resources and tried to spend it on social programmes for the poor, instead of using it to enrich a small élite. You’re not supposed to do that. But Chávez more or less got away with it. And for that even a dead man cannot be forgiven.