For the last 12 years, I’ve been writing about the accelerated collapse of constitutional government in Venezuela, about the alarming cult of personality surrounding Chávez, about his lack of regard for civil rights, due process of law and the separation of powers. Online, where readers can post comments to my articles, they nearly always come forward to defend the Chávez government, noting its electoral legitimacy and undoubted popularity. Sometimes they hint darkly that I must be an agent of imperialist corporate media and have a subversive agenda. I seldom see this kind of push-back in reaction to reports about the eerily similar Putin regime.
I think the difference is partly a matter of marketing. Chávez’s cheerful tropical anti-imperialism has an allure that Putin’s scowling Slavic strongman persona will always lack. Partly, too, the difference has to do with the demand for left-wing posturing among the Western elites that are disgusted by the policy catastrophes in Iraq, on Wall Street and in Greece.
But I also think that views of Chávez and Putin diverge because of a phenomenon the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls “Third Worldism”: the subconscious drive of Westerners to infantilize the global South by mythologizing it and projecting fantasies onto peoples rendered exotic by distance and a history of oppression.