Hugo Chavez and the enduring legacy of despots

I don’t know what happened in Hugo Chavez’s room when he died, 60 years to the very day after Stalin, though I doubt it was anything quite so dramatic. Chavez wasn’t a mass murderer, after all, though he did an enormous amount of damage to his country’s judiciary, to its press, to its public life and to its ever more oil-dependent economy. Like the Soviet dictator, he promised the poor of his country things that cannot be delivered — and still they are expected to turn out in vast numbers for his funeral Friday, while his henchmen begin the battle for succession. The more difficult conversation about Chavez’s legacy will be postponed and indeed will not become clear for many years.

In their recent book “Why Nations Fail,” economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson point out, among other things, that the politics and policies of the past, even the very distant past, sometimes cast a very long shadow. They mention the vast gap between the ethnically and culturally identical societies of North and South Korea, and the profound differences between the northern and southern halves of cities that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border. But this same phenomenon can also be seen in some less obvious places. Poles, for example, divide politically along geographic lines that mirror with great precision the divisions of that country between different empires in the 19th century.

It is in this sense that Stalin and Stalinism also live on, not so much in the current Russian regime, which does not aspire to that level of totalitarian control, but rather in the cultural habits and attitudes his rule engendered. To this day, the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union are prone to think of the state as predatory and of public officials as distant and unaccountable. They are reluctant, even afraid, to become involved in public life and automatically assume that those who do so are motivated by greed and cynicism. The contempt that post-Soviet leaders sometimes appear to feel for their countrymen is another legacy of Stalin, who believed that “the masses” had to be controlled by propaganda and terror, that their social and economic energy had to be restrained, and that their thoughts and views had to be studiously suppressed.

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