Commentary Magazine


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Why is the U.S. Honoring Hugo Chavez?

If the Chavistas currently running Venezuela have their way, the cult of Hugo Chavez will be even more overwhelming after his death than during his life. This morning, as the country prepared for the grand state funeral of Chavez, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that the late President’s cadaver would be embalmed and placed on permanent display in a Caracas museum.

“It has been decided that the body of the comandante will be embalmed so that it remains eternally on view for the people,” Maduro said. “Like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, like Mao Zedong. The body of our commander in chief, embalmed in the museum of the revolution, in a special way so he can be in a glass case and our people can have him there present always.”

In citing these precedents, Maduro unwittingly undermined those many voices that have, over the course of this week, eulogized Chavez as, variously, a social reformer, a civil rights activist, and a tribune of popular democracy. Any genuine democrat would flinch at the thought of being compared to China’s Mao, who is estimated to have starved, beaten and shot between 40 and 60 million of his own people. But Chavez was not such a leader, and his successors have left no doubts over their fealty to the 20th century’s most murderous political currents.

Among the foreign leaders and dignitaries attending Chavez’s funeral are three United States representatives, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), former Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt, and Charge d’Affaires James Derham (currently, there is no U.S. ambassador in Caracas, since Chavez rejected the Obama Administration’s nominee for the post, Larry Palmer, in 2010). It’s safe to assume that they won’t be included among the “A” List of those present; that privilege is reserved for individuals like Alexander Lukashenko, president of Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus; the Cuban leader Raul Castro, who has spent the last three months running the Venezuelan government from Havana; and Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who outdid even Maduro by proclaiming that Chavez would “return to Earth” together with Jesus and the Twelfth Imam.

By giving its official seal of approval to the mourning period for Chavez, the Obama administration is hoping that this goodwill gesture will enable a “reset”–there’s that word again–of its relations with Venezuela. But the Chavistas will have a different interpretation; namely, that the U.S. has resigned itself to the permanency of Chavez’s ” Bolivarian” revolution, and the continued centrality of the ideology of chavismo in Venezuela’s affairs.

As Mary Anastasia O’Grady observed in the Wall Street Journal, “[T]here may not be much the Free World can do to help Venezuela rid itself of the terrible scourge known as chavismo.” But, she added, “at a minimum, it could refuse to go along with the charade that the country is still a democracy with free elections. Repeating the lie doesn’t make it any truer.”

What facts does that charade obscure? Back in December, I pointed out that under Chavez, there was no longer a constitutional separation of powers in Venezuela. Key institutions like the National Electoral Commission, which runs the electoral process, and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company that has squandered billions of dollars in revenue on oil subsidies for Cuba, remain in the hands of loyal Chavistas. The country’s Supreme Court is packed with judges personally appointed by Chavez, while the present prosecutor-general, Cilia Flores, is married to Maduro.

Arguably the most important transformation of the Chavez years concerns the armed forces. Indeed, and in violation of the country’s constitution, the armed forces can reasonably be said to be running the country. Twelve out of the country’s 23 state governors are former military men. Several of the government ministers who will be publicly grieving for the Comandante today were involved in Chavez’s failed coup attempt in 1992 against a democratically elected government. Most grotesquely, the country’s defense minister, Admiral Diego Molero, has said that the military will back Maduro’s presidential candidacy, in flagrant violation of the ban on the military’s involvement in politics.

Against this reality, the United States should have boycotted Chavez’s funeral. By sending a delegation instead, Washington is helping to maintain the fiction that any future election in Venezuela will be more or less fair.

Still, now that our representatives have arrived in Caracas, there is one useful thing they can do. After paying their respects to Chavez, they should go and see Maria Lourdes Afiuni, one of the last remaining independent judges in Venezuela, who was incarcerated in 2009 as punishment for ending the pre-trial detention of a banker, Elegio Cedeno, who ran afoul of the Chavez regime.

While in prison, credible reports surfaced of Afiuni–dubbed by Chavez as a “bandit”–being harassed, beaten and even raped. She is now under house arrest. By visiting her and giving her case some much needed publicity, the American delegation could salvage some dignity from today’s circus.