During his account of Hugo Chavez's presidency, journalist Rory O'Carroll describes a personal encounter of his with el comandante. The location was a coastal village, the occasion a taping of Alo Presidente, Chavez's weekly show which seemed to last about a week.
O'Carroll was permitted to ask a question of Chavez. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, his question was as pointed as it could be: Are you not concerned that you are turning into a caudillo (an old-school military dictator), given that you are changing the constitution so that the president can serve as many terms as he likes (provided he receives the majority of votes, of course)?
Unsurprisingly, Chavez did not take kindly to the question. His answer, however, was really quite brilliant. He focussed on the fact that Carroll was working for The Guardian, a British newspaper. Which is to say, he focussed on who was asking the question rather than the question itself. This, he repeatedly stated, is a question asked in ignorance: in ignorance of both European history and Latin American history.
I won't go into the nitty gritty, but Chavez's main argument was that Britain is still under a monarchy! Nobody even elects its kings and queens! Talk about your caudillismo! He went on to list all the countries in Europe where the political leader has no restrictions on terms (there are quite a few). Indeed, the prime minster of Britain is one example.
O'Carroll paints Chavez as a ranting lunatic during this episode, but when you watch the video on YouTube (with the help of an expert translator) you see that O'Carroll is being disingenuous.
One thing that struck me about the whole thing was Chavez's desire to describe an alternative history to the dominant versions found in the West. In the West we are taught that Columbus "discovered" America. Chavez scoffs at our arrogance. In the United States of America Columbus Day is celebrated, with seemingly little conciousness of the greed and violence which marked his life (made all the worse on account of the Christian faith which he professed). Even a superficial glance at the history should be enough to judge Columbus a tyrant, a hypocrite, and instigator of one of the darkest moments in European history. That he and Martin Luther King both have days named after them tells you something of the confusion which besets American society.
For all of Chavez's faults (and he had many, it seems), his version of history at least approaches the truth. Rather than celebrate Columbus Day, Venezuelans, at the behest of Chavez, celebrate Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). In 2004, a statue of Columbus which stood in Caracas was toppled. What for Europeans might be a statue symbolising our enterprising, adventurous spirit, was for the people of Latin America a symbol of oppression and tyranny.
An Irish person should be especially sympathetic which this aspect of Chavez's project. Could you imagine if we had a statue of Cromwell looking down on us in Dublin city, with our close neighbours celebrating Cromwell Day?