Chávez’s useful idiots

The demagogue of Caracas has helped sustain a long tradition of left-wing fellow travelling

19 January 2013

In the ranking of dictators, Hugo Chávez is in the welterweight class. President of Venezuela these past 14 years, he is supposed to be holding a ceremony of inauguration for yet another term of one-man rule and demagoguery. In anticipation, his supporters, the Chávistas in their uniform of red shirts, are singing and dancing in the streets of Caracas. But rumour has it that Chávez is on the point of death after surgery for cancer in a hospital in Cuba. Caution! The apparent popularity, the sympathy, the tenterhooks, the pseudo-Mandela image of the man, is largely the work of those strange modern-age political publicists known as fellow travellers.

A fellow traveller is one who commits to a cause, preferably foreign and necessarily hostile to the interests of his own country. He, or as often she, believes that the selected cause is promoting the virtues of Peace, Love and Brotherhood, in contrast to the vices of the home country, its government, its injustices, racism, imperialism or whatever. In most of the world, a dissenting attitude of that kind puts the individual’s liberty and life at risk. In the West, the fellow traveller is free to praise what ought to be blamed and blame what ought to be praised, and be rewarded for this with money and a reputation for courage. By means of false moral equivalents, double standards and the assertion that whatever wrongs ‘they’ are guilty of ‘we’ have done worse, anyone can become a celebrity fellow traveller. The Soviet Union of H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley and tens of thousands less intellectual than them was an illusion, a bold manipulation of public opinion. The moment reality became unmistakable, all that remained of that intense fellow-travelling was the feeling of having been deceived. Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s eulogistic Soviet Communism is probably the most misleading book in the English language, yet they are both buried among the famous and respected dead in Westminster Abbey.

Hugo Chávez attracted fellow travellers for the good old reason that he has been the leading spirit in assembling the grand anti-American coalition comprising Cuba, some Latin American states, Russia, Iran and its sidekick Syria, with Zimbabwe thrown in. Originally an army officer, he has had no objection to strong-arm methods such as staging a coup and laying hands on Venezuelan oil. Inclined to Marxism-Leninism rather than capitalism, he changed the constitution so that he could rule by decree; expropriated foreign and domestic companies worth billions of dollars; seized land, and shut down television and radio stations. In front of the press, he humiliated President Obama with the gift of a book claiming that North America has been pillaging South America for five centuries. Needless to say, over that extended period many a South American caudillo has been pillaging his own country just like Chávez without any Yankee participation.


One long-standing beneficiary of fellow-travelling is Fidel Castro. The likes of Herbert Matthews of the New York Times and C. Wright Mills, a Princeton sociologist and author of the polemic Listen,Yankee, were quick to describe communist Cuba as a utopia that it was immoral as well as dangerous to oppose. They and many others wrote Castro up as progressive, screening the methodical brutality with which he has imprisoned and executed dissidents; to that extent they are invited to be accessories to crime. Less murderous, Chávez is nonetheless Castro’s great friend, almost heir apparent. Recently the American Spectator noted that Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon had redirected fellow-travelling to Chávez’s Venezuela, ‘caught in a time-warp… spouting foolish Marxist rhetoric to justify the buffoonish behaviour of their hero’. Capturing the undertow of worship, the fashion model Naomi Campbell called him ‘a rebel angel’.

A couple of years ago, Oliver Stone made a pro-Chávez film, South of the Border. ‘I admire Hugo,’ Stone declared. ‘The pure energy of the man is intoxicating.’ Such condescension modernises the 18th-century myth of the Noble Savage. ‘I know President Chávez well,’ claimed an equally condescending Sean Penn, the actor. ‘He is a warm and friendly man with a robust sense of humour.’ After a sponsored trip by car around Venezuela with Chávez, Penn posted on the internet a diary of thousands of words recounting in soapy detail their time together. ‘El Presidente is really human, like a brother.’ ¡Mi Hermano! Without embarrassment Penn could boast, ‘Just Hugo and me in a convoy of black vehicles.’ And in the course of the drive the wonderstruck Penn caught sight through the car windows of poor people standing by the roadside and weeping with love.

Owen Jones in the Independent a few weeks ago published a little masterpiece of false equivalence and double standards under the heading, ‘Hugo Chávez proves you can lead a progressive, popular government that says no to neoliberalism.’ In a tone of weary superiority, he compares Chávez to his ‘Pinochet-style’ opponents, says this is a funny sort of ‘dictatorship’ (his scare quotes), and makes it plain that neoliberalism — whatever that might be — has had it coming for ages. The paper has also run an article by Johann Hari promoting Chávez, but the less said about a journalist so surprised to discover what plagiarism is, the better.

The motivations of these fellow travellers vary. Delight in associating with a star of the anti-American crowd is clearly simple snobbery. The narcissism with which someone like Penn preens himself as though on the world’s widest stage is also clear. Posturing and self-promotion is good for business, and agents have to be kept up to the mark. Like their predecessors, this new generation of fellow travellers spin illusion and misrepresent reality. I may be wrong, but I detect the deep and secret pull of power. Whatever their differences of character, these people aspire to be on the side of a strong man who dares to do what they would like to do but haven’t the courage. Like Cubans in the recent past, huge -numbers of Venezuelans haven’t waited to test the Chávista limits but have fled the country. About half of those who remain do not wear a red shirt and very much hope that it will not be long before Chávez and his claque are no longer able to do them further injuries.

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  • NeilMc1

    Excellent article David. Our spineless, non-leftist rulers should be espousing this type of rhetoric, however, we only ever hear the loony right chosen by the BBC to represent the libertarian majority.

    “A fellow traveller is one who commits to a cause, preferably foreign and necessarily hostile to the interests of his own country.” That is so Owen Jones, Ken Livingstone, Polly Toynbee et al, who appear to hate the very country that educated them, pays them and keeps them safe. Unlike the countries that they support where education, pay and safety are at a premium.
    Hopefully you will make this a cause.

    • justejudexultionis

      What about the many spineless so-called ‘neoliberals’ or ‘free-traders’ who, under the guise of promoting the free flow of capital and ideas, do no more than undermine the national interest by outsourcing jobs and generating massive domestic unemployment? The brand of reactionary neoliberalism exemplified by this esteemed publication is surely as destructive of the true economic and social interests of our country as anything produced by Owen Jones. There are quislings even at the Spectator.

      • Capilano

        We don’t have massive domestic unemployment. And there is nothing wrong with UK companies operating, and employing people, abroad.

    • http://twitter.com/malkomalkovich malkovichmalkovich

      World leader in flawed shocker.

      Yet the right wing neo-liberals are trashing Chavez for supporting dictators. Because our beloved western leaders have never done that.

      Many of these elitist imperial apologist sociopaths have been supported hugely up by the state as the spoiled baby boomer generation. They had free/cheap education, a tax system that benefited their young selves and with decent pensions to look forward to. All the while leeching off an enslaved young generation.

      I hope there’s a war soon in which your patriotic selves will all be made to sign up and fight your ‘noble’ colonialist causes and rid us of your paunching propaganda.

      • NeilMc1

        Horrible thought. It would look like a clip from Dads Army!

        • http://twitter.com/malkomalkovich malkovichmalkovich

          Dad’s army is like the staff and dedicated readers of the Spectator but with all the charm removed, replaced by a mob of bigoted grown-up brats with insidious intentions.

          • NeilMc1

            Can you hold any kind of discussion without being rude or insulting? Typical socialist.
            Given that the staff and readers of the Speccie are so awful, I’m surprised you come here in the first place. Guess it’s a form of masochism.

          • http://twitter.com/malkomalkovich malkovichmalkovich

            A laughable attempt at a moral high ground seeing as your mob display little morality. Surely having feelings is for ‘bleeding heart liberals’ only?

            I come here to offend you. That’s usually what you faux-intellectual sociopaths do as a badge of honour. Some kind of puerile statement of rebellious individuality when in reality you’re all just a flock of selfish sheep following the mass neo-liberal consensus because you want a new car or an extension on your house. Just emigrate to an isolated island and leave society for others.

            No masochism here, I’m enjoying this.

          • NeilMc1

            That is the point of masochism. You are supposed to enjoy it.
            Oh, and by the way, this was an isolated island and it was full of British people, who are by nature libertarian and democratic and thus don ;t like your venal socilaism/collectivism take everybody’s money off them and give them pocket money statism. We have seen the damage it’s done around the world killing 100’s of millions of people and impoverishing whole nations.

          • http://twitter.com/malkomalkovich malkovichmalkovich

            Enjoying it painlessly.

            It’s funny when you try and talk down collectivism then complain about impoverishing nations as if you’re concerned. You need a history lesson sociopath.

            Neo-liberals of course are perfect saints with a great rack record in economic stability and sustainability. Their capitalist utopia is within touching distance! They never engage in wars or ideologically repress the vulnerable and those who oppose their morally repugnant agenda.

      • Capilano

        Look closely and you’ll see that ‘right wing neo-liberals’ aren’t the only ones criticizing Chavez.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gabyondrasek Gaby Ondrasek

    Great Article! Thank you for such a wonderful way of describing our frightening reality.

  • Ligia Daniela

    …¿No tan tontos? él tenia la Petrochequera y al final ¿No tan útiles? ahora él esta solo con su inevitable destino…y sin Petrochequera

  • http://www.facebook.com/vlaffitte Virginia Laffitte

    Excellent! Telling it like it is, how refreshing. Not everyone wears rose glasses.

  • Ligia Daniela
  • Curnonsky

    Penn is not known in Hollywood to be the sharpest pencil in the box.

  • http://twitter.com/SRPercival Stephen Percival

    If I’m not mistaken, Chavaz was on the brink of losing his reign on Venezula before, out of nowhere, he had an unexplained surge in votes – as though all the commies had come out of their holes just before the gavel was struck

    • Capilano

      No. The elections weren’t fair, but they were free.

  • JMckechnie

    I have, in recent years, looked on The Independent as a satirical publication, and I’m very grateful for their efforts to prove me right by employing Owen Jones.

    • justejudexultionis

      In a similar vein, I enjoy reading the Spectator in order to dissect the frequently irrational and reactionary views of small-minded little Englanders. Not without some justification do the Germans call you ‘Inselaffen’ (island apes).
      To dismiss all so-called ‘left-wing’ commentary hyperbolically as Marxism is pure idiocy, as is the attempt to shut down all criticism of the moral, political and economic establishment.
      Pretending that all ‘left-wingers’ support Castro, Chavez et al. is farcical. I am a social utopian and despise dictators of any political shade. I think you will find that a dictator is a dictator irrespective of the particular ideological formulae they choose to define themselves by. And, for the record, Kissinger is a classic example of an unreconstructed ‘right-wing’ hypocrite whose murder of Allende in Chile should, by rights, have led to his hanging years ago.

      • JMckechnie

        You lost me after ‘In’.

      • rhrt

        Well said. Tribalism is for those who are too stupid to think for themselves. Kissinger is indeed guilty of mass murder in various places.

      • http://owsblog.blogspot.com Span Ows

        Kissinger murdered Allende?…Oh dear.

  • Eddie

    Oh yes, Owen Jones are other leftie hypocrites love Chavez, Castro and other leftwing dictators – I have argued with the usuall leftwing hypocrite academics recently, who are so anti-Israel (a pluralism democracy with an independent justice system), and purr so much whevever the name Chavez is mentioned.
    And if you dare read a roll coll of all those writers locked up by the regimes of Chavez and Castro, they insult you, call you a liar and a promoter of Zionist capitalist media propagana, and defend the dictatorships and secret police torture of these regimes unthinkingly, like the idiot children of wishful thinking they so truly are!
    Look at the website of PEN to see how there is no freedom of expression in Cuba or Venezuela.

    • Jessell

      chavez a dictator? he won four elections on the trot with well over 50% of the popular vote in each case. reduced poverty and unemployment, and used oil wealth for good – redistributing it rather than keeping it in private hands or offshore. maybe you just prefer latin american presidents who suppress the indigenous population and keep profits rolling in for del monte or exxon or whoever else you undoubtedly support, in the name of ‘free trade’.

      eddie, the only reason you support israel is because they are white europeans, as you’re an avowed white supremacist. they kill palestinians, lebanese and iranian civilians at will, and shoot children and female students in the back in hebron, who are simply trying to go about their business, or protesting at living in a military garrison. so what if they have democracy and justice for anybody in israel proper – for the poor bastards who live in the colonies under occupation it’s barbarism, pure and simple – down the end of a barrel.

      • rhrt

        Israel is a theocracy. Electing who enforces religious law isn’t democracy.

      • http://owsblog.blogspot.com Span Ows

        so the many new millionaires (and some billionaires) Chavez ‘boligachs’ are what exactly? The reduced poverty mirrored across the continent even in countries with no mineral wealth? The complete break down of all industry where the once world class oil industry now employs twice as many and produces less than half? Same with iron, bauxite, aluminium, steel, electricity, food production etc. importing most of its food. Highest murder rates (worse than war zones) , military riddled with narco traffickers left to aid flow of drugs from Peru and Colombia. Oil revenue that is 10 fold what it was pre Chavez but improvements hard to see…there are a few good points but the bad far, FAR outweighs the good.

      • Capilano

        “Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia, the defence minister, fuelled the febrile mood by urging Venezuelans to vote for Chávez’s designated heir, Maduro, and to give opposition “fascists a good hiding” at the polls. He told state TV that the “mission” of the armed forces was to put Maduro in the presidency.”

        Yes that’s the kind of democracy the left wants.

  • justejudexultionis

    I have never heard a ‘left-winger’ (whatever that means) defend Chavez – only a fool would. Need I remind you, however, of the tendency of right-wing English people towards fascism. In the 1930s a significant number of English ‘right-wingers’ were drawn to Hitlerian ideology and your ‘Empire’ was hardly a bastion of free-trade and liberal progress was it now? Take the mote out of your own eye before you point out the mote in your friend’s eye.

    • lucillalin

      Excellent comparison as there are so many fascist states even now, with very famous and respected celebrity fans…Or am I right?

    • zakisbak

      “I have never heard a ‘left-winger’ (whatever that means) defend Chavez” –
      I have never heard a left-winger not defend Chavez.

  • welshdai

    Why do you think Chavez is so popular in his home country when Bush and Blair are despised in theirs?

    • zakisbak

      Chavez had about 50% support,Bush/Blair about 25% (at the end of their terms).
      Bush and Blair didn’t shut down opposition media as far as I know,(or stage armed coups either).

  • http://twitter.com/malkomalkovich malkovichmalkovich

    World leader in flawed shocker.

    Yet the right wing neo-liberals are trashing Chavez for supporting dictators. Because our beloved western leaders have never done that.

    Many of these elitist imperial apologist sociopaths have been supported hugely up by the state as the spoiled baby boomer generation. They had free/cheap education, a tax system that benefited their young selves and with decent pensions to look forward to. All the while leeching off an enslaved young generation.

    I hope there’s a war soon in which your patriotic selves will all be made to sign up and fight your ‘noble’ colonialist causes and rid us of your paunching propaganda.

  • ray vison

    Slanderous to call him a dictator – typical of the rubbishing of any elected leader not following the neo-liberal line.

  • Patricia

    “And in the course of the drive the wonderstruck Penn caught sight through the car windows of poor people standing by the roadside and weeping with love.”

    If Chavez was so effective, why were the people poor ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1078105923 Hegemony OrBust

    I’m a leftist. Red in tooth and claw.

    And constantly, sadly depressed by the way that the left move from *ideological movements* to *Bonapartist worship of “great” men”*.

    Let’s look at the facts here:

    One of the constant claims regarding Chavez is the claim that he has cut poverty 29.1% since 1998. It sounds well impressive, doesn’t it? Wow, I’d love a leader that cut poverty that much.

    Thing is, when you look at “the good”, a little hole forms. This hole
    is called “underlying trends”…to wit:- poverty actually *went up* for
    the period 1998 to 2004, to 60%.

    But hey, poverty did eventually go down, didn’t it? A full 29.1% from it’s 1998 figure. Most impressive.

    It also did in Peru (53% in 2002 to 28% in 2011). Brazil (slightly lesser, 37% to 21%). Latin America as a whole: 44% to 28%.

    You’ll note that, really, Chavez’s legacy is – despite Venezuela being awash
    in billions, perhaps trillions, of petro-dollars,- he managed to get
    poverty levels down to 1.4% below the regional average. Now, call me a
    bit of a perfectionist stick-in-the-mud, but I think that regional
    context, combined with the fact the Venezuelan economy appears to be a
    basket case (unemployment 8.2%, inflation in the high 20s, interest
    rates in the mid teens, Government debt and personal debt increasing, 3
    devaluations in 10 years, the agricultural sector, to coin a phrase
    *withering on the vine* to such an extent that Venezuela imports 80% of
    it’s food and no economy outside of the oil, average GDP growth over the
    past 10 year oil boom – when oil prices hit 100 dollars a barrel –
    slightly more than the UK’s average growth in the same period), combined
    with the political repression, the massive crime rate (which is,
    actually, worse than Mexico’s) and the fact that he’s rumoured to have
    salted away a £2 billion dollar fortune for him and his family…

    Well, it makes his cuddling up to Ahmadinajad look like one of his *lesser* crimes, actually.

    I wish the Left would stop with the Bonapartism, I really do. The man
    was incompetent, and – even allowing that his support for the poor was
    genuine, rather than motivated by the wish to get a power-bloc (I think
    it was genuine by the way) – horribly authoritarian and with some very nasty
    political allies. File under “dustbin of history”.

  • Sara Bailey

    Ridiculous article! Why not engage with any of the substantive issues? Don’t you under understand them?

  • Lamia

    The regime has now started openly murdering unarmed opponents in the streets:


    See at 1.54.

    Owen Jones and other thug-worshipping fellow-travellers must be so proud of themselves.

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