As Venezuela turns bleak, where should young, left-wing idealists turn?

A mural of Hugo Chávez in Mérida city. Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Hernández​

Among the secondary tragedies emanating from the current political, social, and economic mess in Venezuela is this: for young, left-wing idealists elsewhere, a magnet for their hopes is fading. I think each generation deserves a chance to believe in the actualization of the dreams and ideals they discover in adolescence. It gives them something to work with as they age and evolve.

In the 1930s, despairing young workers went to Spain to fight for the Republic against fascism. I knew people who went to China in the 1940s. The Cuban revolution in the late 1950s inspired another generation. There were many beacons in the 1960s and '70s, some in Africa. I visited Mozambique early enough to see the promise that soon was snuffed out. By the 1980s, the points of light were retreating. Venezuela under Hugo Chavez was the latest.

He was an eccentric figure in that procession, an unlikely link in a chain that includes Che Guevara. Chavez was a career military officer, in the South American tradition of strong figures who alone can ostensibly rescue their nations from Yankee imperialism and local sellouts. But he was also unique.

For not just a leftist but a Marxist, Chavez had an unexpected commitment to boring old bourgeois-style elections. He said they separated Venezuela from the Soviet Union. He ran repeatedly, in internationally scrutinized votes, and got big majorities amid rising turnouts.

He was overthrown in a 2002 coup, restored by mass protests, ran again and won. He stood in a recall vote -- an institution he created -- and won. (His successor, Nicolas Maduro, has thwarted efforts for a recall vote on himself.) The process was robust enough that a vociferous opposition did well in elections and in 2015 took a huge legislative majority. That led to Maduro's effort to derail them via Sunday's dubious vote for a "constituent assembly."

The usual "revolutionary" argument against elections is they're easily subverted by big money and become a way to roll back gains made by the poor. There have been Marxist exceptions, like Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that the masses need protection from their leftist protectors, and that elections, with full paraphernalia (opposition parties, free press, etc.), provide it.

Somehow Chavez found himself on her side of the argument. (For the record and to cleanse my soul, I'd like to confess I was wrong in approving Egypt's 2013 military coup, that overthrew an elected, though odious, Islamist government.)

But it wasn't electoralism that endeared Chavez's era to so many young idealists; it was his support for popular social movements -- beyond labour and peasant unions: media and culture groups, religious radicals, environmentalists etc.

These movements arose in reaction to the brutal neo-liberal economic policies of the 1970s and '80s and were in full flower by the time Chavez entered politics. Unlike most pols, he didn't try to co-opt them to win elections. He encouraged them in endless concrete ways, but was willing to let them thrive on their own.

Based on memories, I'd say there's nothing so inspiring as seeing ordinary people who'd normally never be enlisted in public matters, speak out and discover their own voices. Somehow Chavez got that right, too.

Maduro succeeded Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013. He has none of Chavez's virtues: his electoralism, a light populist touch, puckishness -- as when Chavez took the podium at the UN after George W. Bush and said the smell of sulphur still lingered, so the devil must have just left; or when he gave Eduardo Galeano's anti-colonialist book Open Veins of Latin America to Obama at an Organization of American States meeting, and you could actually picture Obama reading it. Maduro is a former bus driver and union leader, not a military stiff; you'd expect better of him.

Maduro will also benefit from disgust at the hypocrisy of attacking him and saying he must go -- as The Globe and Mail did this week -- but not others of even lower popularity, like Mexico’s Pena Nieto, whose hands really are drenched in blood; or Brazil's Michel Temer, at 7 per cent, beneficiary of a true anti-democratic coup. Hypocrisy always smarts and rage at the U.S. in Latin America is bottomless.

As for the young, where will they go? Somewhere. Bernie Sanders' or Jeremy Corbyn's next campaign maybe. You can't kill that impulse but you can make it harder to access and express. At least until the next beacon shines out.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Hernández​

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