VIEWED FROM THE SHANTY TOWNS that peer down on it from the surrounding hillsides, Caracas looks like a caricature Latin American capital, with too much North American influence of the wrong kind and too little of the right kind. Here, spoiling a lovely steep valley, is the usual sad, globalized panorama of ugly, uninteresting concrete towers, one of them absurdly crowned with a huge Pepsi can. You might as well decorate the skyline with a gigantic banana.
And here is the usual trite contrast, long common in the Third World and rapidly spreading to the First World--gross wealth on display next to rancid squalor. Yes, there really are hovels a few hundred feet from a freeway crammed with new SUV's. How obvious. How stupid.
This is, at first sight, a place of cliches. Here they all are--the plethora of uniforms, the propaganda murals, the military despot, the rigged elections, the frequent, sometimes farcical putsches, the blithe, unashamed corruption and the prevalent crime, the Cuban fraternal assistance, the blatant suppression of opponents, the currency restrictions, the annoying, avoidable shortages of milk and toilet paper, the unvarying signs of a socialist hand on the economic tiller.
And like so many authoritarian states, Venezuela has little basic order or justice. There are a thousand murders a month in a country of 28 million people. The police simply pull out of the slums on weekends, unable to face the power of the gangs.
Only when you look a little more closely do you find, hidden in corners or quietly understated, evidence of a serious civil society and a genuine national independence--a glorious equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar, a ravishing old cathedral, an elegant, airy 19th-century parliament house embodying the heartbreaking over-optimism of the country's founders, and many honest people, equipped to live in liberty and disturbed by the menace of dictatorship.
They are right to be disturbed. It is astonishing, after more than a century of similar follies all over the world, all ending in weeping or worse, how anyone can still be taken in by the flatulent promises of political messiahs or how anyone cannot be repelled by the blatant unfairness, the transparent purchasing of the votes of the poor, the sheer vanity of Hugo Chavez.
And yet here we go again. No sooner has Fidel Castro finally accepted that his long career in radical chic showbusiness is over and retired to his bed than this new Marxoid messiah, with his own interminable speeches and dubious foreign alliances, has arisen in the Caribbean, loathed to the point of rage by the White House and absurdly idolized by the fashionable Left of the whole world.
I suppose one explanation for this resurrection must be the extraordinarily rapid collapse of the brief, intense Thatcher-Reagan dream. They told us that the world would finally accept that the market was all and that the implosion of the USSR would discredit world-reforming socialism for good. No such luck. The market philosophy, lacking any real interest in the human soul, turned out not to be very persuasive even in its countries of origin and to be a gross, bloated failure when tried in the former Evil Empire itself. If it didn't kill off idealist yearnings in Washington, London, or Brussels--let alone in Kabul and Mecca--why should it do so here, where some of the Caracas slum quarters have been suppurating on their neglected slopes for seven decades?
Then, of course, there is the Bush-Cheney effect. Nothing could have more effectively revived bad old resentful anti-Americanism--the cartoon kind that relies on images of a heedless, greedy, violent Uncle Sam--than Messrs. Bush and Cheney. They did exactly what people like Hugo Chavez always say they do. They mistook force for power.
It is also hard to dislike Comrade Chavez personally, mainly because he is funny--funny about himself, funny about others, funny at the expense of opponents, who mostly deserve to be laughed at. …