Hugo Chavez in 2008: Venezuelan socialism won't become tyrannical like Russia

Venezuela continues to collapse into a totalitarian nightmare, complete with state-run media, starvation, and government death squads. In light of what’s happening there today, I’ve been looking back at some old video of Hugo Chavez and the promises he made during his time in office. I’ve come across several clips I found to be striking but this one, in particular, seems newsworthy because in this clip Chavez vows that his path to socialism will avoid the mistakes made in Russia in the early 20th century, which he himself admits was socialism turned tyranny.

The following clip comes from a running documentary series about Chavez which was released in 2008. In this installment, which is volume 5 of the series, Chavez was speaking to members of the international media about the benefits of socialism, specifically, his concept of socialism which was democratic and not dogmatic.

“Everything I’ve said about socialism in the last two years is a concept,” Chavez said. He continued, “It’s not like I carry a catechism. Over there in Russia during the early 1900s when a group of intellectuals wrote down a catechism, a communist catechism.

“No, we’re not going to fall into those same mistakes. Those mistakes that dogmatized that proposal and at the end of the Stalin era even tyrannized it. We are calling on everyone, I am calling everyone. I am calling to all Venezuelans to contribute to the debate for the construction of the Venezuelan path to socialism.”

This is Chavez’ version of the old trope: Real socialism has never failed because it has never been tried. He goes on to say, “In the political field, socialism is democracy. In capitalism, democracy is not possible.” His Democratic Socialism was going to be different.

Obviously, that’s not how things have worked out and the failure wasn’t all the result of Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro. It was Chavez who nationalized industries, who sought to punish success. It was Chavez who immediately upon being sworn into office, proposed a new assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. From the Brookings Institute:

Hours after being sworn in as president in 1999, Chavez issued a decree calling for a referendum on a constituent assembly to rewrite the Venezuela constitution. Opponents immediately challenged this decree in court, arguing that existing constitution required the legislature to call such a referendum. The Venezuelan Supreme Court rejected this argument, upholding Chavez’s power to call a referendum because the people’s constituent power is “superior” to the existing constitution. In a subsequent decision, however, the court backed away from this reasoning, holding that if the people approved a constituent assembly, it would be “bound to the spirit of the constitution in force, and therefore is limited by the fundamental principles of the democratic state of law.”…

A reshaped Supreme Court accepted Chavez’s argument that the Constituent Assembly stood above above the existing legal order. Chavez’s coup had succeeded. He used his unfettered control over Venezuelan politics to push through a new constitution in December 1999 that strengthened the presidency at the expense of the legislature.

Eventually, the socialist party in Venezuela would resort to packing the allegedly independent Supreme Court with loyalists, taking over the National Assembly, refusing to allow a referendum to hold elections, etc.

Ten years after Chavez vowed not to make the same mistakes, Venezuela is a country where people are starving, millions are fleeing, opposition leaders wind up in military prisons, and roving death squads are sent to terrorize people to keep them from protesting the socialist party.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That certainly seems to be the pattern with democratic socialism. It would be a good thing for America if more people would learn from these mistakes rather than assuming, as Chavez did, that next time will be different.