Is Hugo Chavez a “True Socialist”?

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."

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    Mr. Fitzpatrick states " it should be no concern of ours if Latin American governments decide to make a mess of their economies."


    I believe this flies in the face of the basic tenet of Solidarity, a tenet of Catholic Social Teaching. We most definitely should be concerned because the mess it will make of their economies will affect the concrete temporal well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Guest

    There are so many things to disagree with in this article, I will only take on a couple out of respect for space.

    Chavez' wholesale theft of several entire industries seems not to faze Fitzpatrick a bit!

    And Fitzpatrick entirely ignores Chavez' huge military build-up.

    This article is mostly depressing in its gloss and lack of respect for genuine Christian principles.

  • Guest

    I suspect that Mr. Fitzpatrick would agree with jschmeez's statement about the basic tenet of solidarity.

    I think he's saying something more along the lines of this: If Chavez does indeed destabilize his economy to the detriment of his people, the United States–"ours" in that sentence–should not consider that as a reason for intervention, armed or otherwise, to rescue Venezuelans from the folly of having elected him.

    What this recognizes is that people are free to choose the kind of economic system they wish to live with … and Chavez did not hide his intentions in this regard. He was freely elected on a platform he took no pains to hide. If they later discover that their vote has backfired, and they're worse off then before, then let their political system handle it (though admitedly it will be a crippled system for the consolidation of power Chavez will now have achieved).

    We may encourage them to "do the right thing" economically, but not force them.

  • Guest

    There is no such thing as 'benevolent socialism' outside of a Christian context.  Such a system pretends to be something other than what it is:  spending other people's money to play hotshot, and doing so at gunpoint. 

    There are myriad examples of that in our own country. 

  • Guest

    I think that "Veritas Patronus" is attacking some straw men in Fitzpatrick's article: you cannot disagree with omissions.  As Veritas IPSA said, " … I will only take on a couple out of respect for space."  We cannot expect Mr. Fitzpatrick's article to address every aspect of Venezuela's economic, political and religious milieu.  As it stands, he has done an admirable job of pointing out some needed distinctions that hasty Republicans usually overlook in their categorical condemnations of anything other than laissez-faire capitalism (not a very catholic economic system if we take Leo XIII's advice).

    The genius of Mr. Fitzpatrick's article is that he is able to show a distinction in political/economic terms which almost corresponds to similar distinctions made by St. Thomas Aquinas in his treaty "De Regimine principum".  Distinctions such as these are so necessary in days such as ours: full of speech but vacuous of rigorous, logical thought about difficult matters.  Thought before speech and/or action in matters like these.

  • Guest

    Of course this was all written before this weeks big announcement taht Chavez can now rule by decree on just about anything.  If real this would make him not only a true socislist – but a true dictator.

    Let's keep imploring the Lord for Peace

  • Guest
    I was amazed by the position Mr. Fitzpatrick took in his apology for Chavez.  Citing his own examples and definitions, its clear that Chavez is a "true Socialist."  It troubles me when Catholics are so obtuse when it comes to identifying evil in the world.  Here are a few examples spring to mind:
    * Chavez is nationalizing industries built up by private sector investors => that's a politically correct way of saying he's stealing them.  Stealing is stealing regardless of how Mr. Fitzpatrick spins it.  By the way, their stock market has plummeted in Venezuela on the annoucements of nationalization – that doesn't happen for "harmless" internal policy changes.  I assume he is not concerned with the real harm done to private investors both in Venezuela and abroad.
    * He seem to let Chavez off the hook for extending term limits – what would it take for Mr. Fitzpatrick to be concerned?  Would Chavez have to change his title to "Evil Regional Dictator?"  Just today we read that Chavez' party has "voted" him more powers to dictate more extensive aspects of governent.  That must not trouble Mr. Fitzpatrick either.  Haven't we seen time and time throughout history that "absolute power corrupts absolutely?"
    * Chavez addressed the UN last year and proceeded to call President Bush the Devil countless times.  Why can't we Catholics stand against that kind of slander.  Mr. Fitzpatrick seem to overlook his hateful rhetoric and is willing to passively observe his alliances with Iran and Cuba.  Our Lord never allowed rationalization for evil behavior and He never turned a blind eye to evil either.  Mr. Fitzpatrick's kind of passivity is what allowed past dictators to realize the fullness of their ambitions.  Evil only succeeds when good men stand silent.
    I can only conclude that Mr. Fitzpatrick must be very sympathetic to Chavez and his agenda.  Liberalism has deadened our sensitivity to evil with liberalism's deceptive philosophy of moral relativism.  I can only hope God will open his eyes to the spiritual battle playing out in the world.  It's a battle of good vs. evil, freedom vs. tyranny, and free will vs.passion.  Which side is Mr. Fitzpatrick on? 
  • Guest

    If anyone is really interested in why Hugo Chavez views the West and in particular America, the way he does, I would recommend reading "Confessions of an Economic Hit man" by John Perkins.  On the issue of nationalization of industries–which I personally believe is always a bad idea–you have to look at the context of each particular situation.  Oil companies finagle deals with countries like Venezuela whereby these companies get majority of the revenues from the oil they pump while the oil-producing country has to use what is left to service the interest on often crippling loans provided by the World Bank and other institutions.   Oh don't forget that from the same amount left it has to provide infrastructure, healthcare and education to its citizens and that is before factoring in the high level of corruption endemic in it's government. 

    Faced with such situations, the leaders of these countries are increasingly calling for re-negotiation of such deals–as Mr. Chavez has done–or simply showing the door to corporations that refuse to re-negotiate.  As with most matters, before drawing good vs evil battle lines, following the money trail sheds more light and understanding to things..

  • Guest

    simply showing the door to corporations that refuse to re-negotiate

    There is a certain naïveté in these words. The first ones shown the door by Chavez were the middle class Venezuelan managers and technicians of Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. These were Venezuelan citizens and residents, almost all of them, and the reason they were shown the door was because these people represented the most viable political and social opposition to Chavez’s policies. Today, the great fear on the streets in Venezuela is losing one’s job – and being stuck on the streets. And the more Venezuela nationalizes its economy, the greater is the direct control over the livelihoods of ordinary Venezuelan citizens exercised by the central government. By nationalizing the energy sector, Chavez is making the government into the decision maker for an enormous portion of the Venezuelan economy and using the resultant political power as a boot to kick in the teeth of any who dare oppose him.

    Chavez’s goal is to slowly crush the will of all who oppose him, which is a clever tactic given the problems history shows us when governments attempt to use brute force to accomplish the same end. But clever or not, the goals of the Venezuelan government are the stuff of evil imperialism.

  • Guest

    Each instance of Chavez's declarations or actions, taken alone, may not be of concern – as Fitzpartick asserts.  But taken together they should be of grave concern and the U.S. govenment should most definitely *not* take a "wait and see" attitude.

     Hitler and Moussilini were freely elected, had the enthusiastic support of the vast majority of their country's people, and ended up going far beyond messing around with their countries economies.  The world watched and waited, and paid a gruesome price for it. 

  • Guest

    Chavez reminds me most, not of Castro or Stalin or Mao, but of Anastasio Somoza, the supposedly right-wing dictator of Nicaragua for so many years. What a lot of people don't realize about Nicaragua in the late 1970s was that the Somoza family had pretty much wrapped up the entire country as its own personal property. The evils suffered there were so great that leaders from the political right (e.g. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, later President Violeta de Chamorro's husband, assassinated in 1978 for opposing the Somoza regime) allied themselves with outright Communists (e.g. Daniel Ortega, current President of Nicaragua) in order to get rid of Somoza.

    Somoza wasn't a true Socialist nor indeed of Socialist of any stripe. But he controlled nearly all the large-scale economic capacity in the country, either personally or through family members — and exercised significant political control over smaller scale economic activity. The debate over Somoza would be whether he was a fascist or a true Fascist.

    But both the means and the ends of Somoza’s domineering control over Nicaragua were the identical to those of Chavez: control the large-scale economy completely. Dominate the smaller scale economy with threats and laws whose only real goals are to undermine the influence of opposition forces. Turn the whole country into a huge hacienda subject to control by the central government. These are thoroughly evil actions whose short term effects impoverish an entire nation and whose long term effects institutionalize poverty to the point of hopelessness.

    There is one other Latin American country which has traveled this path, and it’s not Cuba. Rather, it’s Haiti, whose French masters ran the island as an actual hacienda and whose independent-era masters have, for all intents and purposes, done the same. Venezuela ought to take a close look at Haiti if it wishes to understand the danger it is in if it doesn’t do away with Chavez and his ilk very soon.

    All of this is important to Catholics for a simple reason: while there is no intrinsic shame in being poor and indeed Jesus promises considerable recompense for those who endure poverty, it is a grave sin to deliberately impose poverty on another individual. Chavez’s actions indicate a desire to impose poverty as a means of political control.

    Come to think of it, Stalin did this once, deliberately starving hundreds of thousands if not millions, in the Ukraine in order to crush political opposition there. So, perhaps, Chavez is a bit like Stalin. But Somoza is the one most like Chavez, both in terms of his outright pettiness and in his outright incompetence as the leader of a tin-pot regime.