Hugo Chavez Misses the Point

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It’s kind of hard to avoid talking about Hugo Chavez this week. Anyone who gets both Charlie Rangel and Nancy Pelosi to stand up for President Bush is worthy of our attention. He’s what we call in journalism a “fat target.”

But I’m going to do something shocking. I’m going to defend Hugo Chavez. Well, not exactly. But I am going to defend someone who Chavez mentioned this week as his personal hero. He’s also a hero of mine. He was the only person to have risen to the rank of general in the French, U.S., and South American revolutions. His name? Francisco de Miranda.

I interviewed Chavez for about two hours a couple of years back and was amazed to find out that Chavez was a big fan of Miranda. It surprised me because Miranda hated tyranny and couldn’t get enough of the good fight. Chavez seems to love tyranny, or at least those leaders who embrace it, like Castro and Ahmadinejad.

What’s more interesting, though, is that Chavez chose as his personal hero a man who really seemed to understand what made the new United States of America work.

Shortly after the U.S. revolution was over, Miranda toured the Northeast U.S. and wrote a diary, in which he concluded that the U.S. would develop much faster than Latin America. That seems to be common sense now. But back then, it was heresy.

Most Europeans thought that Latin America would develop faster than the its northern neighbor. After all, Latin America had a better climate, better soil, fewer hostile Indians and gold and silver. In New England, all they found underground were rocks! So why did Miranda believe so differently?

By way of explanation, Miranda described an incident he saw while staying at an inn outside of New York City.

A French general had been staying at the inn with some of his men. When they left, the general refused to pay, believing that a famous French general was above such mundane, plebian legalities as paying bills. The innkeeper wouldn’t let it go and finally called for the local sheriff, who promptly gathered up a posse and threw the general and his men in jail until they paid their bill. This, said Miranda, was why the U.S. would develop faster than any Latin American nation. Because in the U.S., everyone, no matter how privileged, is forced to adhere to the same set of laws.

In the U.S., even shortly after the revolution, you couldn’t get ahead or get around the law just based on who you were. If the French general had been in Europe or Latin America, he probably would have been able to throw the innkeeper in jail for insolence. But in the U.S., you don’t get ahead merely because of your family name or your connection. You get ahead based on the quality of your work or service. In such a society, and in such an economy, only the truly qualified rise to the top, and the entire society develops more quickly and efficiently.

Now of course, this is an ideal. We all have examples of where someone has gotten an extra boost because of who they were or to whom they’re related. But compared to Europe or Latin America, ours is truly a meritocracy. And clearly Miranda saw that.

But just as clearly, Chavez doesn’t.

During our interview, I pointed out to Chavez that if he admired Miranda, he must admire the United States and the way it works. But he didn’t acknowledge that point at all. I was talking right through him. He went on to describe Miranda’s military skills, something that a caudillo military leader like Chavez admires more than Miranda’s true love of a democratic meritocracy. What he really liked about Miranda, said Chavez, was that he was a true patriot.

If Miranda were alive today, he would probably think that Chavez was behaving less like a true patriot and more like that French general, who thought he was above such things as paying his bills.

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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.