Meeting Chomsky

(Editor’s Note: The following post was written by alumnus Miguel Ángel Santos (ITFD ’11 and Economics ’12). Follow him on Twitter @miguelsantos12 or at his blog)

Photo by the author

The first time I heard of Noam Chomsky was in the early nineties. During my senior year in college I was assigned to read a small book, “The true thinkers of our time(1989), a gallery of interviews with a select group of scientists from a wide array of disciplines. The author, a French journalist named Guy Sorman, had chosen them using three simple criteria: 1) once they showed up in their corresponding disciplines it became impossible to keep on thinking about it in the same way; 2) they had to be alive; and 3) they were willing to talk to him.

The book covered a wide spectrum, from the origins of the universe all the way to modern economic thinking. Each section presented two or three opposing views on the same topic, which were fiercely discussed and smartly presented, allowing amateurs to grasp the frontiers of human knowledge.

Chomsky had made his way into the group deservedly. He had revolutionized the field of linguistics, posing a theory that conceived language as a biological capacity. He identified common patterns to all languages (i.e. all made up plurals by adding characters in the end, none at the beginning) and hypothesized that while the environment allows our linguistic capacity to develop, it falls short of explaining its extraordinary complexity.

I mention this to highlight the thinker, the man working alone and facing the problems and puzzles of his time through a sheer exercise of athletic thought and intelligence. The fame and scientific status he earned by making his most relevant contributions early in his life (all date from around his thirties) would be applied later to bring the world’s attention on a set of political causes, most of them left-winged, all rooted in the United States plethora of foreign policy wreckages. He became an outcast, a role he obviously feels very comfortable with, always pointing towards the elephant in the room.

This latter version of Chomsky is the one most people are familiar with.

It is hard to conceive that there are not two or three Chomskys, but just one containing all these different roles. As I follow his fatigued footsteps on the way to his office, I cannot help but think that at 85 years old he is the only living figure of that gallery of thinkers. It has been three months since I first thought about the possibility of talking to him. To that purpose, I had carefully drafted an email, stating that I had followed with interest “the evolution of his views on Venezuela” and would liked to discuss his perspective of the post-Chavez era with him.

For the uninformed readers I would just highlight four data points. In 2006 Hugo Chavez waved a copy of Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance during his (in)famous speech at the United Nations. The book immediately became a public sensation. In 2009 Chomsky showed up accompanying Hugo Chavez in a public rally in Caracas. He looks disgruntled in the video, even a bit surprised when receiving the microphone and having Chavez himself adjust it to his height. “It is easy to write and talk about peace and barriers to peace. But what is so exciting about visiting Venezuela is to see how a new world is actually being created, and talk to the one that inspired it”. In 2010 Chomsky lobbied the Venezuelan government in support for the release of judge Maria Afiuni, a single mother with cancer who had spent a year in jail after freeing Eligio Cedeno, a banker accused of corruption charges. During her confinement, she had been repeatedly assaulted by other prisoners while jail authorities ignored her pleas and looked elsewhere. “Judge Afiuni has suffered enough… She has been subject to acts of violence and humiliations to undermine her human dignity. I am convinced that she must be set free.”

At last, in 2011, Chomsky gave an interview to The Guardian where he criticized Chavez for amassing too much power and making an assault on Venezuela’s democracy. “Concentration of executive power, unless it’s very temporary and for specific circumstances, such as fighting World War II, is an assault on democracy. You can debate whether Venezuela’s circumstances require it. But my own judgment in that debate is that it does not”. On that same interview, he reflected again on the Afiuni case: “I’m skeptical that she could receive a fair trial. It’s striking that, as far as I understand, other judges have not come out in support of her … that suggests an atmosphere of intimidation.” Last year Maria Afiuni was finally freed, although she is forbidden from speaking to the media.

My reference to the “evolution of his views” has not pleased Chomsky, who responded a day later. “Just to clarify, I’ve written and spoken a good deal about Latin America, sometimes with direct involvement, but not Venezuela.  I’ve hardly written or said a word about Venezuela, though there are many rumors about my alleged views.  About my only involvement has been in quite prominent protests about human rights violations”. Even though this exchange occurred months ago, it is fresh in his mind and comes up even before I have the chance to sit. “What is it that you say you have read? You could not have read anything, because I have never written anything in support of Hugo Chavez”.

I am a bit shaken. It is just a small taster of what is to come. I have the impression that Chomsky got himself caught in a picture he would now rather not to be in. Questions on Venezuela and his support of Hugo Chavez keep on showing up on all of his lectures, no matter how unrelated to the topic or the venue may be.

I mention the hyperbole I have described above, and also a conference he held two weeks ago at MIT with Yale students, where he devoted a significant amount of time to praise Hugo Chavez’s achievements on poverty and inequality. “Yes. I did say that. Isn’t it true? Wasn’t poverty reduced and inequality brought down sharply?” He speaks fast but in short bursts. Before I have the chance to respond he turns to context, certainly a key idea one needs to keep in mind when analyzing Chomsky’s statements. “There was a time when Hugo Chavez became the scapegoat of the United States. They made every possible effort to present him as our big enemy; they compared him to Hitler and made all sorts of absurd and disproportionate accusations. He became a mechanism to divert attention from our incapacity to address our own issues and recognize our own failures. It was in that context that I made those statements. You cannot isolate the statements from the context”.

The conversation immediately plunges into the legacy of Hugo Chavez: a divided and violent country, one of the most dangerous in the world, at the brink of becoming a failed state.

He ignores my references to crime and turns his attention to division, asking rhetorically:Why is it divided? What is the source of the division? I make an effort to avoid his provocation and focus instead on Chavez’s strategy to reduce poverty. In essence, it is a matter of inducing a consumption boom based on the oil windfall and foreign debt, which quintupled in the previous six years. Since the regime at the same time strangled the private sector, the only way to fuel consumption was through massive imports. The vehicles by which the government distributed money were much less important than money itself. Literate people were paid to (re) learn to read, teenagers were paid to attend newly created universities that granted degrees in record time (two to three years). Education, one of Chavez’ most prominent flags, is just a big scam. People have not learned anything worthy, and in any case there is no market to demand their capabilities. Instead, they turned on to the state, whose payroll kept on growing not only at the central government level but also through its massive web of expropriated business unit (the Venezuelan Observatory of Property stopped counting at 853).

Chomsky strikes back. “I agree the way they have done this is not sustainable… but then why do they keep on winning elections? Why do so many people still support the government? What are the chavistas telling them that you are not? You know what it is? They have a compelling story. For many years Venezuela was dominated by elites that turned their back on the poor, harvested all the benefits from the oil bonanzas while marginalizing the poor… Chavez came up against that, gave them recognition, legitimacy. That is something the opposition has not been able to offer… That is not to speak about the US sponsored coup against Chavez…

Chomsky follows the same strategy of the Venezuelan regime, which is to put away criticism and respond to any reference to their incompetence by blaming the previous elite and resuscitating the one-night coup occurred more than ten years ago. We need to move out from there. There has to be an expiration date for blaming our present issues on previous generations of politicians. It has been fifteen years!

He circumscribes the Venezuelan case within a wider framework. After all, it is hard to abstract from the fact that Chavez’s ideas have propagated fast across Latin America…According to him, the elites of Latin America monopolized power, captured and concentrated all the wealth flowing from the exploitation of natural resources, while excluding the vast majority of people from the benefits of modern life. They went on to create a system that granted the exercise of some basic freedoms, but not enough as to threaten the status quo. They milked domestic economies and hoarded resources abroad by massive capital flight. The debt crisis of the eighties and the failure of IMF-sponsored policy packages in the nineties overflowed the dam. It is always about eliminating poverty or eliminating democracy.

I acknowledge the framework may be right, but stress that in the case of Venezuela the previously ruling elite was succeeded by another one, much more incompetent, populated by the military instead of civilians, and much less comfortable with the previous degree of freedom. As a result, basic liberties such as freedom of speech, economic freedom, property, have been trimmed down drastically. Now, how do we get out of here?

You may be right, that happens often. Look at South Africa; look at what Mandela has done… He rebelled against a system and then let all his people down by maintaining the same economic structures but changing the color of the people in power… But there are successful cases too. Look at Nicaragua! The living standards there have risen dramatically, they are so much better today than in the Somoza years…

I find it ironic that he mentions Nicaragua. First, a great deal of Daniel Ortega’s success can be explained by the massive oil subsidy granted by Venezuela. Now, Ortega is no fool. He has created a private company, a joint venture between Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA and a private Nicaraguan partner. This company concentrates all transactions, and accumulates the net debt arising from the difference between oil shipping received and agricultural products exported back. In the case of political change in Venezuela, he can declare the company in bankruptcy, freeing the treasury of Nicaragua from any obligations.

Second, and most importantly, Ortega maintains the rant against the United States, capitalism and the private sector in his public speeches, but in the backstage deals with all of them smoothly, and even works hard to improve the conditions in which multinational companies and domestic private entrepreneurs operate. In any case, it is also ironic that all of Chomsky’s political theories end up requiring an illuminated elite as the only means for sustainable progress.

Leaving the past behind and considering the issues from a more practical standpoint, I found more common ground with Chomsky than I would have thought. In the end, he even volunteered his ideas on the political strategy of the Venezuelan opposition. I understand the conditions are harsh, but you are not facing one of those fascist regimes of the fifties(he might be increasingly wrong on this account); why don´t you do more grass roots work? What is preventing you from doing that? I have followed loosely the presidential elections, and as I recall it Capriles presented himself as an improved version of Hugo Chavez. Where are you going with that? You need to find your own message...

Chomsky’s super-efficient assistant has just walked in to indicate that time is up. Venezuela is obviously a topic that resonates with Chomsky, as he lingers on at the table, talking consciously without looking at the door. I am a bit surprised on how little information on Venezuela he had when he decided to volunteer support to Hugo Chavez. I have been trying for some time to do some evaluation on Chavez social programs… but there is not enough information. Do you have something on that?

It is impossible to do a cost-benefit analysis of the Misiones, and it will always be so. The administration purposefully broke the national budget into four or five pieces and made public expenditure impossible to audit. I respond that during the presidential campaigns of 2012 the opposition team gathered some statistics on coverage. Forward me anything you may have, I am very interested.

As I walk out I realize that my desire to see him again at a better time is as strong as it is unlikely. It’s Noam Chomsky, and with all his faults, he remains one of the true thinkers of our time.