The outpourings that take place when someone dies always irk me a little. Why not offer the same sentiments, with the same passion, when the person is alive? Why not express it for a birthday, rather than a funeral?
But I know many people who are in pain, as I am. And I see the flow of commentary erupting about Chavez’s “legacy” - some wise and insightful - more vile and idiotic - and I feel something slightly different merits saying.
Oversimplifying, any life has broadly two dimensions. First, there is the person’s actions. The public part. What history might judge. And second, there is the person behind the actions. The private part. What you might judge to deem the person a friend, or not.
To assess Chavez’s public actions one should look at the world around Chavez, not only at Chavez’s workmates, but also at Venezuela over a span of time, and then at Latin America, and even at the whole world.
Sadly the aphorism “the good die young,” comes true too often. The aphorism “power tends to corrupt” also comes true too often. But not in this case.
Call Chavez the exception that proves the rule, if you like, but his use of power was restrained compared to choices of the Cuban revolution, for example, much less compared to more typical cases. And Chavez tirelessly advocated dispersing influence, including working on creating a new infrastructure to replace the power he wielded with power from the people.
Many in the political circles I relate most to believe that a person imbued with vast power would never sincerely work on behalf of shifting power to the people. I can only say to them, look at the councils, assemblies, and communes and the transformed lives of millions of Venezuelans, and consider the very obvious aim of it all, and then assess Chavez in light of the evidence.
When a person privately does what they are supposed to do, acting honorably but in accord with their responsibilities and position, it is welcome. But when a person escapes the implications of their life position to be far better than the forces around them push them to be - that is admirable.
And so what can we say about the man behind the public choices? Based on one brief time together, it is cheeky in the extreme to have any opinion at all. And yet, cheeky or not, I do have an opinion.
After a meeting with Chavez where he mainly discussed world affairs with Chomsky while a number of us listened, Chomsky and I were getting into a car to leave what is called Miraflores, the Venezuelans’ presidential palace. I turned to Noam and asked, did you believe him?
Noam had just engaged with Chavez about all sorts of events in recent history, hearing about Chavez’s assessment of meetings with American and Latin American diplomats, etc. Yet Noam knew that I did not mean, did you believe Chavez’s answers. He knew, instead, I meant did you believe Chavez was who he appeared to be, his persona?
We had encountered someone who was as personable as anyone I have ever met. A person who evidenced extraordinary concern for you, on first meeting. A person who displayed, in the course of a few hours, sentiments of solidarity and insight that were exemplary, and yet also a sense of humor and of inclusion, which appeared to extend to everyone around him. And mainly, a person who was just plain nice. And Noam replied to my question, that as much as he did not expect to feel as he did, yes, he did believe that behind what we saw and experienced, there was, basically, more of what we saw and experienced.
The point is that, typically, a politician is a creature who learns by the conditioning of his or her circumstances to operate in all kinds of settings in ways designed to make people feel good - and especially to feel good about him/her. Beneath that, however, what the politician is really like typically goes unseen. The appearance and the essence do not correspond. Noam’s answer was that in this case he thought, as I thought, that what we saw in our time with Chavez wasn’t only skin deep appearance - it was Chavez.
Later, a friend told me he asked Noam about the trip and Chavez and that Noam replied that he expected to meet a President, and he instead met a very nice, smart, and clear thinking person. Perfect summary.
It is incredible enough for someone to be a very nice person while traversing the usual corrupting and distorting byways of modern society such as relating to others via competitive markets, being a wage slave subordinate to others and largely silenced, or an employer dominating others and way too loud, and generally operating in context of bullying or being bullied. To be a nice person amidst all that, but while also sitting on a throne, with people all around you ready to do anything you request - that is quite exceptional. And, that is, I guess, the bottom line. Chavez was quite exceptional.
We are going to have to go forward toward a better world without having many people like Chavez on our side. And so I would suggest, rather than thinking any of us will closely emulate Chavez - who was so exceptional - we should instead try to collectively create space and especially structures, in which more typical people can, due to their mutually supportive circumstances, far more easily attain live’s that are worth living and celebrating - while being nice people.