Friday, April 02, 2010

Chavez vs. Chavez

I was drawn to the comparison of the two Chavez's in Josh's Hemispheric Brief yesterday, especially by the op-ed by Prof. Jeffrey Rubin, who has lead a research team looking at social movements in recent years with funding from OSI's Latin America Program.  In reading the two pieces, I think the main point of both -- the fundamental flaws of personality-driven politics -- is missed in the brief characterization above, which mostly highlights the positive aspects of both men.

In fact, Miriam Pawel, a journalist who's just written a book about Cesar Chavez,  laments his over-idealization -- as one suspects from the title and subtitle: "Not just to praise Cesar:  Cesar Chavez has been elevated to iconic status without his legacy having been critically examined". The main thrust of her piece is as follows:
The first half of the story has been widely told and Chavez's place in history justly celebrated. His birthday is already a holiday in California and several other states. But the David-versus-Goliath victories are only a piece of the Chavez story.

Chief among the lessons we should take from his life is that heroes are human, with real flaws. You follow them blindly at your own risk. The biggest regret that many who worked closely with Chavez now express is that they did not speak up for what they believed in when it might have mattered. They failed to fight to keep building a labor union when Chavez veered determinedly toward his vision of a communal movement for poor people, based on an ideology of sacrifice.

A second lesson is that the inspirational leaders who build movements are not necessarily suited to run organizations. Chavez was a brilliant strategist, most comfortable in the adversarial role he termed the "nonviolent Viet Cong." By contrast, he dismissed as "nonmissionary work" the day-to-day routine of administering a labor union, negotiating contracts and resolving grievances. He lacked the interest to focus on those more mundane issues -- or the will to delegate the work to others and relinquish control.

His insistence on absolute control demonstrates a third lesson: When you empower people, they may not choose to wield their power toward the goals you believe they should. Chavez was a risk-taker, and he taught others to take risks. But trusting workers to run their own union was one risk he adamantly refused to take. That cost farmworkers the best chance they ever had at building an effective and lasting union.

None of this appears in California's official curriculum, a selective and glowing account of Chavez's life, developed in conjunction with his heirs and adopted by the state Board of Education to fulfill the law that established Cesar Chavez Day.
And the money grafs of the Rubin piece similarly highlight the "lessons" of Hugo Chavez as failing to promote real democratic norms:
For Cesar Chavez to have succeeded in his dream of dignity and well-being for farmworkers, he would have needed to combine his visionary commitment to building a movement with attention to the day-to-day details of making a labor union work for its members. He would have had to set up procedures for debate and voting – a democracy inside the UFW movement. Farmworkers needed a progressive movement and democracy to be able to take on the interests of the powerful and sustain the gains for which they fought so hard.

The same is true for Hugo Chávez. To make good on his promises of dignity and well-being for poor Venezuelans, he needs to combine his movement with real commitment to democratic institutions and procedures before it’s too late. That means freeing the radio stations and newspapers to say what they want, bringing fairness and robust competition back to courts and elections, and keeping social movements mobilized and in the streets.

The movements behind Chávez, in turn, need to press for real change while insisting on the means to hold leaders accountable, not signing over their autonomy to one big, Chávez-led project. Venezuelans need not only a movement in the streets but the working, day-to-day practices of democracy to forge more humane alternatives to the brutal market economy that has devastated their country.