Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2006

Ian Buruma on Hugo Chávez

Filed under: antiwar,imperialism/globalization,Islam,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

Ian Buruma

Not satisfied with embarrassing himself in the British press last February for "explaining" terrorism in terms of young men not being able to get properly laid, Bard professor Ian Buruma turns up again like a bad penny in Rupert Murdoch's London Times heaping abuse on Hugo Chávez–presently a guest of Mayor Ken Livingstone–and Fidel Castro.

Like many other intellectuals who have gotten swept up in the "war on terror," Buruma seems to have left his brain at the last turn in the road. Not only has he lost the critical ability to distinguish truth from fiction, he has also lost the ability to write clearly, a stunning indictment of Leon Botstein's hiring practices. Here is one of Buruma's ungainly clots of prose:

"Unlike many traditional caudillos, but like Silvio Berlusconi (who cut his coat from the same cloth), Chavez was democratically elected, in 1998, after having tried and failed to take the more traditional strongman’s route to power, by armed force in 1992."


Since Buruma is a journalism professor, I would advise Bard students to study his writings in order to learn how to avoid mistakes, since so many are conveniently assembled in a single place.

Turning to the substance of Buruma's screed, such as it is, we are told that Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas was arrested in 1973 for being gay and for "ideological deviation." Actually, Arenas was arrested for child molestation–something that I understand is a crime in the U.S. and Great Britain as well. Buruma's understanding of the issues appears to be based on Julian Schnabel's lurid film about Arenas. However, most people except for the ideologically driven understand that whatever homophobia, official or unofficial, existed in Cuba over 30 years ago, steps have been taken to eradicate it. Gay activist Marcel Hatch reports, "The Infomed web page, the most visited Cuban Internet portal with 150,000 hits per day, includes the graduation photos of a group of transsexual and transvestite sexual health promoters, a glossary and the emblematic rainbow flag."

This is not to speak of the pro-gay rights "Strawberry and Chocolate," the most popular Cuban film in history.

When Buruma turns his attention to Chávez, there is even less attention paid to the facts. He writes, "Chavez, as well as his cabinet ministers, appears on television to denounce journalists who dare to criticise the revolution." This effectively turns the victim into the criminal. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the Venezuelan media situation understands that privately owned newspapers and television stations were caught red-handed in an abortive coup attempt in 2002. In the September 11, 2002 Le Monde Diplomatique, Maurice Lemoine reported:

"After Chávez came to power in 1998, the five main privately owned channels – Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión and CMT – and nine of the 10 major national newspapers, including El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, El Impulso, El Nuevo País, and El Mundo, have taken over the role of the traditional political parties, which were damaged by the president's electoral victories. Their monopoly on information has put them in a strong position. They give the opposition support, only rarely reporting government statements and never mentioning its large majority, despite that majority's confirmation at the ballot box. They have always described the working class districts as a red zone inhabited by dangerous classes of ignorant people and delinquents. No doubt considering them unphotogenic, they ignore working class leaders and organisations."

Obviously, in Buruma's warped understanding of democracy, Venezuela would be better off if Chávez had been toppled in 2002 through a coup spearheaded by a mass media that was run by the local equivalents of Rupert Murdoch, who has so graciously offered him a bully pulpit in the London Times to rail against Hugo Chávez.

Buruma's article concludes with a paroxysm of rage against the socialist left and the New Left Review in particular. One can understand Buruma's fury. Notwithstanding some cavils about the way the wars have been conducted, Buruma has attached himself to the cause of US imperialism in the "war on terror" and has been railing against its leftist opponents for the better part of 3 years. In a September 13, 2003 Financial Times op-ed piece, Buruma claims that the radical movement has circulated monstrous lies, such as "The Bush-Cheney junta as bad as Saddam's dictatorship." [sic]

Actually, over the three years since Buruma wrote these words, it has become more and more obvious that life was actually better under Saddam than it is now. In an article on dissidentvoice.org, Tufts History professor Gary Leupp makes the case that life was "Better Under Saddam," as the article's title puts it. Leupp cites Ali Hili, a gay Iraqi man, as follows:

“Iraq, at the time of Saddam, was — I mean, I’m talking about as a gay Iraqi — it was not as bad as we can see now… There [were] no homophobic attitudes toward gay and lesbians. Most of them [were] welcomed in the community and the society… It’s a very dark age for gays and lesbians and transsexuals and bisexuals in Iraq right now. And the fact that Iraq has been shifted from a secular state into a religious state was completely, completely horrific. We were very modern. We were very, very Western culturalized — Iraq — comparing to the rest of the Middle East."

Since Buruma is so dedicated to gay rights, based on his special pleading for Reinaldo Arenas, one might expect him to take up the cause of the antiwar movement, which is pushing for an end to an occupation has empowered Shi'ite fundamentalism with its attendant misogyny and homophobia.


  1. The situation of gays in Iraq, is worse than your post. Sistani the most moderate cleric, ok’d killing them.

    On women see: http://houzanmahmoud.blogspot.com/2006/04/aljaziranet-interview-with-yanar.html#links

    Comment by Renegade Eye — May 16, 2006 @ 5:22 am

  2. buruma can filed away alongside Timothy Garton Ash, marlise simons, Nick KRistoff and the rest of them. My son works in Venezuela and reports weekly on the benifits the poor experience under Chavez reforms.

    Its pretty funny to have seen the warm reception Chavez got in London……mayor Ken has redeemed himself a bit I think.

    Comment by john steppling — May 17, 2006 @ 5:27 pm

  3. nice, cozy place you got here :)..

    Comment by guile — June 13, 2006 @ 6:39 am

  4. Your assault on Ian Buruma, whom I was not familiar with, makes me want to become more familiar with his writings. Why would you believe, given the Castro regime’s history of persecution of gay men and lesbians, that a charge of “child molestation” was a valid charge, rather than a false charge, which it certainly was. I am convinced that Castro is a tyrant and that Chavez is a power-hungry opportunist. My 1981 book, “Gays Under the Cuban Revolution,” is out of date and out of print (available through the used book network on amazon.com), but things have not changed nearly as much as Cuba’s apologists suggest.

    Comment by Allen Young — May 5, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  5. buruma’s written loads of great books…so what’s your claim to fame, asswipe?

    Comment by marce — April 2, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

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