“I call petroleum the devil’s excrement. It brings trouble…Look at this locura—waste, corruption, consumption, our public services falling apart. And debt, debt we shall have for years.” —JUAN PABLO PEREZ ALFONSO, a founder of OPEC, in 1975

Venezuela—owner of a very large pool of oil and, thus, the curse of an oil economy—is set to choose whether Hugo Chavez gets to be President for Life or not come December 2. Chavez, for those of you who don’t know, is El Presidente of Venezuela, petro-dollar fueled caudillo and current object of bootlicking by dipshit celebrity leftists like Sean Penn and Naomi Campbell, along with tepid support from the likes of Noam Chomsky (whom Chavez seems to think is dead).

“He who draws his sword against his prince should throw away the scabbard.” —ALESSANDRO FARNESE, Third Duke of Parma

TORANAGA: There is no mitigating factor for rebellion against your liege lord.
BLACKTHORNE: Unless you win.
TORANAGA: Very well, you may have named the one mitigating factor. —JAMES CLAVELL, Shogun

All this could have been avoided. Back in 1992, then Teniente Coronel (Lieutenant Colonel) Hugo Chavez led a failed “colonel’s” coup against the government of Venezuela. The government of Venezuela, led by then-President Carlos Andres Perez, didn’t listen to the corollary of the advice of the Duke of Parma. I’m sure that the good Duke would have thought it was so obvious it went without saying. Updated for modern times, the reward due to all who attempt a coup and fail is, in order:

  1. A night to make peace with the maker of your choice (optional);
  2. A nice meal (optional);
  3. A cigarette (optional);
  4. A blindfold (optional);
  5. Several high velocity rifle rounds to the chest (not optional, though a stout length of rope around the neck or a sharp blade are acceptable substitutions);
  6. A hollow point to the head (if needed).

Failure to follow this obvious advice is not a recipe for long-term survival of a government and, indeed, a profound sign of its weakness. Think, for instance, of the savings had Adolf Hitler received his justified reward for the Beer Hall Putsch rather than several months in jail, which he used to write Mein Kampf and catch up on his sleep for his soon-to-come European tour.

Given the nature of Venezuela as a petro-state, weakness is almost guaranteed, which is why Chavez has been able to win in slow motion since 1992. Post-World War II, Venezuela developed an odd system of planned party alternation known as puntofijismo, in which two political parties agreed, starting in 1958, to swap back and forth who got the presidency. Venezuela was beset by outsiders wanting to intervene, e.g., Cuban-backed revolutionaries and rightwingers financed by Dominican dictator Trujillo, and had recently come out of its own caudillo past. So at the time getting some political stability probably made sense, but as time went on, the system got more and more corrupt, creakier and creakier, until Chavez made his move in 1992, pushing himself up from nobody in the army to the center stage, kicking down the puntofijismo to allow in third parties. By that he meant, of course, his party.

While many like to think that petroleum (or any other expensive commodity) is a Godsend to a poor country, petro-states are widely known to have severe weaknesses, corruption, serious lack of broad-based economic development, and the accompanying political corrosion. They rarely do well over the long term, instead going through major boom-and-bust cycles as oil prices go up and down. Right now, oil is up. In the ’80s, oil was down, way down, which is why Chavez was able to stage his coup. It won’t be up forever, most likely being replaced as a diverse basket of bio-fuels, solar, etc. While Venezuela could be a participant in the development of modern energy (and hence a modern economy), rather than spending the money on future investments, Chavez is busy spending it on a giant planned city in currently uninhabited hills, oil subsidies to the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, petro-swaps to Cuba for doctors (rather than, oh, trying to grow some of your own), lots more guns to protect against a coming “Yanqui” invasion, six hour workdays, etc. And, of course, he buys off the legions of Venezuelan poor—those who don’t benefit from the oil bucks that are stolen by Bolivarian apparatchik cronies, competed away, or diverted into the coffers of international companies, just like in basically any other petro-state, but have to suffer through the boom-and-bust of a commodity economy. Chavez’ behavior, in short, reminds me of the kind of thing I’d expect of a lottery winner elevated up from the trailer park to the realm of multi-millionaire, only writ large. Sure, he’s putting his friends’ kids through college and paying mom’s medical bills, but he’s also supporting a deadbeat uncle with six kids and doesn’t realize his stash is, in fact, limited, and needs to be grown for the future.

“All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” —KARL MARX, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

In 1994, Chavez was let out of jail. In 1998 he ran for President, running as a “Bolivarian,” more or less meaning “socialist.” Over the last decade, he’s been gradually undermining the democratic state of Venezuela—flawed as it was—using the playbook of dictators such as Louis Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, etc., a playbook first written by the original “man on horseback”, Gaius Julius Caesar. These include:

  • Widespread use of rule by decree and emergency powers of highly dubious legal grounds.
  • Ignoring international bodies (in this case the OAS) when it suits his purposes.
  • Whipping up populist fury by constantly playing the nationalist and the xenophobic “they’re out to get us!” card, e.g., by conveniently cutting ties with Colombia right before an election.
  • Engaging in a my way or the highway foreign policy based on chumming up with lackwits like Mahmood Ahmadinijad.
  • Siccing jackbooted thugs on his Jewish countrymen (where have we heard that one before?)

Since being elected president in 1998, Chavez is busy actually doing a lot of the stuff that gives Dick Cheney major wood when he’s in his undisclosed location and not busy shooting hunting companions in the face. Add to that plenty of stuff that Cheney wouldn’t ever countenance, too. If Hugo wasn’t constantly giving Uncle Sam the middle finger and, let’s face it, they weren’t so f—ing stupid, Hollywood Leftists and my home boy Radical Jack would be slamming him for what he really is. Now, he’s completing the process of autogolpe, “self-coup,” or so he hopes. He may well have over-played his hand.

Why, may you ask, has the US done nothing? Well, first of all, the US does not have the power that the wildest dreams of Latin American conspiracy theorists believe it to have in general and certainly not in the case of Venezuela. Simply put, Chavez has us—mutually—by the cojones. The US obtains 15%+ of its oil from Venezuela. Remember all those refineries forced to shut down by Hurricane Katrina? They’re set up to refine the very tarry Venezuelan oil. Oil, you see, is only fungible up to a point, since it varies greatly in its characteristics. US refineries are set up to receive Venezuelan oil. Most other refineries aren’t. Refineries are not easy or quick to build. You do the math.

Unfortunately, Chavez is very, very good at playing the anti-American populist card. Also unfortunately, much of American foreign policy is designed for domestic consumption (or as bureaucratic grandstanding). Backroom channels, supporting the locals, letting the locals own initiatives, etc., don’t look sexy to the American voter and thus often lose out to more active policies that often breed long-term resentment. So it is with Chavez. Two examples spring to mind:

  • Pat Robertson’s loose lips calling for Chavez’ assassination. While most people in the US think Robertson is a lunatic (not enough, however, to keep him off the air entirely), abroad he’s perceived as a non-governmental figure who is close to the current administration.
  • In 2002 there was a coup attempt to overthrow Chavez, who by that time was a democratically-elected president. Whatever really happened, the US government was seen to be giving tacit support to the coup. While Chavez himself attempted a coup, he doesn’t much like the notion of it happening to him (duh) and, more importantly, is quite willing to use the event rhetorically forever.

Chavez’ idol Simon Bolivar ended his life as a dictator and was about to go into exile, but he died of consumption first. The people of Venezuela will, alas, probably not be so fortunate since I’m quite sure that Chavez has the best Cuban doctors his petro-dollars can buy…. Morphing from “leftist hero” to “right wing oppressor” is really not at all hard to manage. Mussolini started as a socialist “man of the people.” Juan Peron was similar. Indeed, we should not forget that the “socialism” in National Socialism was there for a reason.

Let’s hope the people of Venezuela on Sunday finally realize that giving ultimate power to one man is a road best not traveled… though, of course, it may be too late.

Update: It looks like Venezuelans decided that Chavez for life was too much for them. Let’s see if Chavez actually has any democratic bones in his body and actually accepts the verdict of a loss, which is, in my view, the key test. Of course, just because Chavez himself won’t be in office doesn’t mean he won’t pull a Vladimir Putin, unarguably the most successful of the petro-state presidents. Lest we forget, the fall of the Soviet Union was, in no small part, due to the drop in the price of oil in the late ’80s, and chaos in Russia in the ’90s was also maintained by the drop in oil price. Next time the price goes down….

Update (02/12/08): Hugo’s regime seems to be unraveling. It seems that even large amounts of oil money can’t balance the unicycle.

The most complete human being of our age. —Jean-Paul Sartre, about Ernesto “Che” Guevara

“Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” —Argentine saying (“I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”)

Fatherland, socialism or death!El Presidente Hugo Chavez’ rallying cry.

So I was reading Gmail the other day and saw one of those really Twilight Zone-esque ads that Google puts up above your inbox along with the news crawl, such as advertisements for golden-crusted Brussels sprouts, tips on caring for cocker spaniels, top-dollar custom-made guitar picks, or The Circumcision Center, a urology practice in Atlanta specializing in fly-in snip-snip to your willy. Don’t eat gas-inducing Brussels sprouts before your visit or attempt to pay in expensive boutique guitar picks while your manic cocker yips at the good doctor’s heels….

No, those are just ordinarily weird(?) but this ad was for Radical Jack’s T-shirts, which was downright ironic. Radical Jack, it seems, is an aging ’60s radical (ex-SDS, etc.) who has embraced capitalism to bring merch to the progressive masses… merch bearing the smiling likeness of Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Subcommandante Marcos, etc., anti-Bush merch, etc. This is the place you can get the acne-pocked face of Leftist dictator du jour Hugo Chavez along with a bunch of guys that are handy with red, blue and yellow face paint printed on a t-shirt of your very own. Note to Jet Set Leftists: Good old Hugo has been showing his true colors in the coming Dec. 2 capstone of his autogolpe, taking plays straight from the playbook of Stalin and Hitler: Shooting student protesters, widely intimidating voters, calling for the execution of former allies, etc. (Bolivár in the end ruled as a dictator, too.)

Well there is a place in Marxist thought to make use of the techniques of the enemy against him and I would be hard-pressed to think of a more crassly capitalist mushroom than a online merch store, well except maybe this. From the “about”:

Welcome to RadicalJack.com – A place for radical T-shirts, books, films and gear. Most progressives and revolutionary activists agree that putting messages on T-shirts is a very effective way of popularizing the movement’s message. At RadicalJack.com we are seeking to offer a broad selection of progressive t-shirts and other cultural items designed to get your message across and stimulate discussion. Please browse our site and let us know what you think! All of our proceeds go to support the progressive movement, so the money generated by your purchases will be used to support the struggles you believe in!

That’s right, folks, if your cause is, oh, mass death of tens of millions by famine induced by collectivization and crazy forced industrialization followed a decade later by a fit of pique which lead to a million and a half additional deaths, do we have a T-shirt for you! A notable asymmetry: While the classics of Lenin, Trotsky, and Chairman Mao (“Mao More Than Ever“), appear all over Radical Jack’s, Comrade Stalin, defender of Marxism from 1928 (or so, depending on how you count it) until he dropped dead in 1953, gets no love, no love At All…. =>:{( (That’s a sad Stalin smiley, in case you were wondering.) I didn’t see a shirt for Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe, who’s managed to turn what was arguably an African success story into a hellhole in less than a decade, but I’m sure that’s just an oversight. Like Chavez, Mugabe had his foreign jet-set claque (not so much these days). He also had his Night of the Long Knives/Dirty War mashup in Ndebeleland. No love for Middle Eastern anti-American tyrants either, or either of the Kims, père or fils—I guess Kim Jong Il’s official biography and Elvis ‘do is just too weird even for Radical Jack’s. Challenge to readers: Post your favorite oversights in the comments!

Naturally there is much Che to be had. Che was incredibly photogenic to be sure—he had a Brad Pitt boyish handsomeness about him—but not a nice guy, having been, among other things, commander of La Cabaña Prison in Cuba which made the likes of Abu Ghraib look like summer camp… we’re talking about a place where an unknown number of “enemies of the revolution” went in to receive a bullet to the back of the head. Che’s tenure there makes George W. Bush’s exercise of clemency, or, rather, lack thereof, in his years at Texas governor downright lenient. He also managed to run the relatively thriving Cuban economy into the ground during his brief tenure as Minister of Economy through the ever-popular collectivization (though I bet anyone likely in that position would have done the same). In other words, Che was Castro’s Lavrenti Beria or Heinrich Himmler and wearing a T-shirt of him should be seen to be roughly similar to wearing one of those fine gentlemen on your chest. Suffice it to say that Che—like famed Waffen SS member Otto Skorzeny or ringleader of the 911 hijackers Mohammed Atta—is proof-positive that courage is a tool; it matters to what end you put it. (Oddly enough, Skorzeny was, in fact, banging Eva Peron when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Che was supposed to have been interacting with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita. I should also note that, so far as we know, Skorzeney fired his guns at combatants, not helpless civilians.) Che is, as a recent stories indicate, so protean a figure that I hear tell even German neo-Nazis carry signs with him on it claiming he was “a nationalist,” which is patently ridiculous. (I can’t seem to find a reliable link, sorry.) You used to be able to buy Che stuff at Target and he is, of course, nearly ubiquitous coffee shop decor. And a lock of Che’s hair goes for big bucks these days. He’s even become Saint Ernesto in Bolivia. Sainthood, it seems, is pretty darn protean, too. I’m quite certain Radical Jack makes most of his money (“used to support the struggles you believe in!”) on Che (and anti-Bush stuff). Remember, Che urges you to Chenge the World… in a fetching powder blue scoopneck T. Even Marxists it seems are not immune to the lure of a stupid double ententre… a sure sign they’ve embraced their inner retailer.

Now, if I were getting a T-shirt, I’d want two:

  1. Two dead radicals, thereby giving Stalin his due.
  2. The Hoff in, unarguably, his finest moment:

I have to say, though, this one, this one, this one or this one—all available on Radical Jack’s—would do pretty damn well. (There are others.) Too bad they’re up with a bunch of megalomaniacs and murderous rogues….