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Friday, December 13, 2002
 
Et Tu, Nicholas?

I'm rather a fan of Nicholas Kristof. Although overshadowed by Paul Krugman, with whose column Kristof's usually shares the Times' op-ed page twice a week, he's generally objective and logical. What, then, are we to make of his latest?

Every evening at 8 p.m., middle-class Venezuelans pour out of their homes to bang pots to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chávez. If I were Venezuelan, I'd be with them. Mr. Chávez is an autocratic leftist demagogue who is running the economy into the ground, manipulating the Constitution and fostering hatred between rich and poor. Venezuela would be much better off if he resigned.

I honestly don't know. Although I don't think I'd like to share an apartment with him, Chávez gives every appearance and evidence of trying to do right by his country and the vast majority of its people. While an argument from someone of Kristof's standing and track record could change my mind, he has not chosen (or is unable) to muster the requisite evidene to do so.

Kristof speaks of Chávez' "manipula[tion]," of the Venezuelan Constitution, and quotes Admiral Daniel Comisso that Chávez has "systematically violated" it, but offers not even one concrete instance of it. Although Chavez has pushed for changes to his country's constitution, he has proceeded within the law and has moved only with public and legislative approval. On the record, however, is his opponents' coup attempt last April, which was decidedly not constitutional. Through all of his opponents' agitation, Chávez has ruled with a relatively light hand and left intact media outlets determined to remove him.

Prior to his election, Venezuela had been run by a tiny elite that had left 4 in 5 of its citizens in poverty despite its status as the world's third largest exporter of oil. His attempts to wrest power from this elite have, predictably, led to unease in global capital and business markets and a vast outflow of foreign investment. The alternative, he believed, was a continuation of the status quo, so he pushed forward. Change is hard, and always meets resistance. Look at what the U.S. had to go through to make (more) actual the constitutionally mandated civil rights of its black citizens. Chávez is attempting something far bigger, to break the 100+ year hammerlock on political and economic power enjoyed by a tiny segment of his population, and he's doing it without kangaroo courts, firing squads, martial law, or even squelching dissent.

As for "fostering hatred between rich and poor," how does that compare with prior administrations empty promises and utter disregard for the poor? It's a dead cinch that if Chávez is ousted, there will be no improvement in the lives of Venezuala's impoverished, only a return to the cozy, corrupt oligarchy of the past.

So what is Kristof's beef? Why would he prefer the return of the cronies? Is it because Chávez fostered ties with Cuba? Because he isn't the compliant lapdog of Big Oil? Because he criticizes U.S. policy in Colombia and Afghanistan? Because he's (gasp!) a "leftist?"

I'm having a Clara Peller moment here, Nick. Help me out.