Sitting at Hillary Clinton headquarters in South Carolina after a long day of work, there is almost nothing that pains me more than what I am about to do: defend Bernie Sanders.
Why would I do that? Because there is something that is even more painful, and that is hearing my fellow Venezuelans compare Sanders with Hugo Chávez.
The collective political trauma that Chavez left behind can’t help but cloud our judgment and our ability to understand other realities. After Bernie Sanders won the battle for New Hampshire by a landslide (ouch for me), I did what any reasonable millennial would do: I wasted my time on Facebook. Scrawling down the screen I read, one after another, the passionate messages from fellow Venezuelans claiming that Sanders was very much like Chávez and that the US was now doomed.
As people in Nevada head off to their caucuses, Hillary and Bernie are neck-and-neck there. Once again, many of my fellow Venezuelans made their Facebook voices heard: Sanders was going to destroy America like Chávez destroyed Venezuela.
Sigh. Close screen. Call it a day.
Really? Where to start? I guess we can start from the beginning.
Let’s rewind to 1992. While Hugo Chavez was leading a botched coup d’état against president Carlos Andrés Pérez, the newly elected congressman of Vermont, Bernie Sanders, was passing his first piece of legislation to create a National Program of Cancer Registries.
Some years later, in 1999, only a couple of hours after taking office, Hugo Chávez decided to call a referendum to rewrite a constitution that had preserved an –imperfect but battle-hardened- Venezuelan democracy for 40 years. In less than a year the Venezuelan Senate was dissolved and the presidential term had been extended from 5 to 6 years. Fast forward to 2009; Chávez would change the rules again to allow him to run for re-election indefinitely. By then Sanders had become Senator and was working on regulations for Wall Street designed to help the US recover from the 2008 financial crisis. The end.
Sanders and Chávez couldn’t be farther apart as politicians. Sanders first move after taking office was to institutionalize change that would improve the lives of millions, while Chávez first move was to try to perpetuate himself in power. While one of them respected and used institutions to achieve his goals, the other believed that democratic institutions were a hindrance, and that the achievement of his goals justified the use of force.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I do understand where the comparisons are coming from. Sanders declares himself a “socialist” and –as if that were not enough– a “revolutionary”. If you are not a victim of chavismo you might not understand that these are two terms that have been shunned from the vocabulary of millions of Venezuelans (together with the color red). Then again, Chávez was not a socialist when he got elected. Remember? Arguably, he was never one. Sanders, on the other hand, has always been open about his intentions and consequent with his ideas.
He believes in the Nordic-style, high-tax, high-benefit welfare state.
Are his ideas revolutionary? Not really. Would a Nordic-style welfare state be revolutionary for the US? Yes. Is it possible? Perhaps in the future. Bernie Sanders knows that his so-called revolution will not become a reality in his lifetime. He knows that his “revolution” is equivalent to Barack Obama’s HOPE: It won’t change the structure, but it will mobilize the votes. That’s the tragedy of Bernie Sanders and the reason why I wholeheartedly support Hillary Clinton. But that’s something that we can talk about another time.
Today we are talking about you, fellow Venezuelans, letting Chávez’ legacy cloud your judgment. These comparisons, as mild as they seem, damage our reputation abroad. They make us seem self-centered and shallow. Things that I want to believe we are not.
We were supposed to learn a lesson from all the mess that Chávez left behind. We were supposed to learn that extreme poverty and inequality isolate entire communities from political solutions to their problems. We -of all people- should be able to tell the difference between a left wing politician and an insane hater of institutions. We were not supposed to hate the welfare state. While young people in the world are worrying about improving access to health and education, I wonder what will turn out of us, the young millennials that Chávez left behind.