The line from Pope Pius XI's 1931 social encyclical Quadragesimo Annno is quoted often by Catholics on the political Right: "No one can be at the same time a since Catholic and a true Socialist." The question I pose for your consideration is whether President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela fits the description of a "true Socialist." At this point, I would say he does not, but I'm wavering.
It is not an easy question to answer, even though Chavez openly uses the term "socialist" to describe himself. We must remember that there is a difference between a socialist and a "true Socialist." Pius XI was making a point when he used the adjective "true" and capitalized the word "Socialist" in his encyclical. His objective was to differentiate between the totalitarian, atheistic, revolutionary form of socialism espoused by Marxists — which he condemned — and the welfare-state programs and nationalization of major industries championed by those who call themselves socialists in Western Europe these days — which he did not.
In other words, Quadragesimo Anno leaves the door open for a Catholic to conclude, for example, that the policies of the British Labor Party make sense for Great Britain. It places Stalinism, on the other hand, beyond the pale. A Catholic is free to favor socialized medicine and nationalized coal mines, but not the repressive egalitarianism of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Mao and Fidel and Stalin were "true Socialists" by Pius XI's definition; Europe's Social Democrats are not. They may be misguided in their economic theories. You are free to conclude that. But they are not what Pius XI meant by "true Socialists."
For some time now, I have been telling anyone I can get to listen that Hugo Chavez is providing a nice opportunity for Catholics on the Right, who have supported our government's assertiveness in Latin America against Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to demonstrate (even if only to ourselves for academic purposes) that we understand these distinctions; that we are not knee-jerk apologists for American corporate interests.
My point is that it should be no concern of ours if Latin American governments decide to make a mess of their economies by turning to one version or another of the command economies that have been tried and abandoned because of their inefficiencies in the former Soviet Union and China. It is our business, however, if they invite our enemies to establish military bases on their soil, with missiles pointing at the United States. "True Socialists" are likely to do that. While there is no reason to assume that a Latin American government that nationalizes an American company is taking the first step toward totalitarianism and aligning itself with our enemies, there is also no reason to assume it is not.
Chavez's policies and behavior of late have been problematic, to say the least. Let's look at a few examples. What can we conclude about his endgame? He recently nationalized Venezuela's electric industry and the country's largest phone company. He already has control of its oil. What does that tell us? Not much, I would say. It may be a mistake in economic terms to do these things. But it does not make him a totalitarian. He has not abolished all ownership of private property. We will have to see what he does next.
Likewise his recent elimination of Venezuela's term limits for the presidency, thereby enabling him to hold power far into the future. What does that imply? Very little, I would say. He did not conduct a coup, nor proclaim himself dictator for life. He did not put an end to the electoral process. At this point, all he has done is make it possible for him to run again for the presidency — and again and again. The question is what will happen if polls one day indicate he is likely to lose one of those elections. There are indications that he may be willing to circumvent free elections if that day comes.
Why do I say that? Because Chavez has made no secret of his admiration for Fidel Castro. That speaks volumes. Moreover, Chavez's supporters in the Venezuelan Congress speak openly of their plans to model their government on the Paris Commune, the socialist government that briefly ruled in Paris in 1871. The Paris Commune contained strong Marxist elements. Marx wrote enthusiastically of its endeavors. Chavez and his backers have to know that. It is irrelevant that Chavez gives the impression of being a posturing, sometimes clownish, blowhard whose public comments should not be parsed too precisely. The same could be said about Hitler and Mussolini during their ascent to power.
To all this we must add Chavez's alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During Ahmadinejad's recent trip to Venezuela, the two leaders announced joint efforts to explore for oil in Venezuela's Orinoco region, as well as plans for a trading company to price oil in euros instead of dollars. They are doing this to weaken the influence of the United States in the international oil market. They are within their rights to pursue these policies, of course. It is similar to what OPEC does. And the United States would be within its rights to use its diplomatic and financial muscle to oppose them. But only diplomatic and financial muscle. Their manipulation of oil prices is not a justification for the application of American military pressure.
Neither are his chest-pounding pronouncements about bringing an end to the "American Empire." There is a chance that this is nothing more than nationalistic bluster designed to stir up his backers or that Chavez is referring to nothing more than an end to what he considers excessive American corporate involvement in the Venezuelan economy.
But there are other things that took place during Ahmadinejad's trip that indicate there is more on his mind. Once again, we will have to watch. Chavez called Ahmadinejad a "fighter for just causes" and a "revolutionary and a brother." This was not an expression of admiration for Iran's policies on human rights. Chavez has spoken openly of his backing of Iran's uranium enrichment plans. Those who want to argue that Chavez means by that Iran's peaceful development of nuclear energy are free to do so. The rest of us are free to think otherwise. Is it far-fetched to picture a day in the future, when a nuclear Iran will offer to help Venezuela also become a nuclear power?
The New York Times' coverage of Ahmadinejad's trip included an interview with Alberto Garrido, author of Chavez's Wars. It is Garrido's contention that there "is a desire by Chavez to accelerate what he views as a strategic alliance with Iran. The Venezuelan left has for decades considered allegiances with Muslim countries as one of the ways to create a new civilization through the toppling of American values." If Garrido is correct, Chavez is not looking to model his government on the European welfare state. He may very well be what Pius XI meant by a "true Socialist."