Cesar Chavez and Hugo Chavez may have different reputations, but they both offer lessons for progress in America.
March 31 is the birthday of the Chavez Americans love to love. Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers (UFW) to successfully take on California agribusiness in the 1960s, and his soft-spoken manner and fierce commitment to social justice inspired a generation of activists.
Supporters remember the grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1960s and '70s as a time when ordinary people joining together began to change the world. Mr. Chavez's birthday is celebrated in eight states, and during the 2008 campaign President Obama said he'd make it a national holiday, in tribute to the charismatic Latino icon.
Hugo Chavez is the Chavez Americans love to hate. Blustery president, challenger of US influence in Latin America, and subverter of democratic norms, Mr. Chavez seeks counsel from Fidel Castro and mocks US presidents in public. He polarizes Venezuela by alternately rallying the poor and shutting down radio stations, and he urges leftist presidents across the Americas to take up his anti- US and anti-capitalist stance.
The truth is, however, that the two Chavezes are more alike than they are different. Americans' inability to see that says more about our own political blindness than about these two charismatic fighters for social justice. And if we reexamine these figures, we may find a way out of our own political impasse.
Few Americans know that the gains won by the UFW in the '70s have since unraveled. There are few unions for California's farmworkers. Many of these workers face conditions similar to those of the 1950s, living in tents in the canyons of San Diego and receiving minimum wage for backbreaking labor that is also irregular and unsafe.
And as a recent book by journalist Miriam Pawel makes clear, the cause of the UFW's demise was Cesar Chavez himself. The charisma and brilliance that enabled Chavez to rally supporters across the US, from students to ministers to suburban housewives, also led him to ignore the on-the-ground needs of running a union and throw out anyone who opposed his top-down authority.
Few Americans know that Hugo Chavez has brought dignity, food, and a say in politics to many of the poor Venezuelans who were excluded from the wealth and upward mobility of the oil-boom years. Organized in neighborhood councils, Venezuela's poor feel like citizens for the first time in their country's now 50 years of democracy. They can debate public issues, contribute to the development of their neighborhoods, and get access to healthcare.
Why don't Americans know that Cesar Chavez stomped on democracy in the UFW, purging anyone who spoke up to disagree with him and slandering loyal supporters as spies and seducers? And why don't Americans know that Hugo Chavez offers the dignity of recognition and citizenship, along with material resources for communities and families, to people who have been suffering brutal poverty since the end of the oil boom in the early 1980s?
We don't know these things because we don't like to see politics in complicated packages. We think of successful movements for social justice as entirely good, and we imagine democracy as a system of elections, laws, and courts that produces sound legislation out of the needs and preferences of citizens, mediated through elected representatives. When democracy doesn't work this way, we decry partisanship and special interests. …