I’m reading an interesting article in the Nation, taking a critical and nuanced look at Hugo Chavez. Is he a Democrat or Dictator? The article never really decides on one or the other, but instead chooses to discuss the contradictions, motivations, and context for Chavez’s Bolivarian Project.
The failed referendum did not end the polemics. But for the many, more sober observers caught in the middle, it did help to clarify the actual state of Venezuelan democracy. Chávez’s defeat was proof that Venezuela today is not a dictatorship. Still, the authoritarian tendencies of Chávez’s government, while exaggerated by some of his critics, are very real. His supporters may excuse them as responses to the problem of political exclusion that is, undoubtedly, a more fundamental threat to democracy throughout the region. But unless those authoritarian tendencies are curbed, the Bolivarian dream of overcoming this exclusion will almost certainly remain unfulfilled.
Interestingly enough, this article claims that Venezuela was a model of democracy throughout the 70s: it had a vibrant two-party system, the parties compromised when they needed to, etc. Yet this was bad thing, because, in the end, Venezuelan society was very unequal and fraught with class division. While both major parties contained members of all economic classes, both were also ruled by the economic and political elite. Chavez lead the disenfranchised to power, and tried to right some of those wrongs and oust these elites from power. By all accounts, he succeeded.
One of the keys to his success, since then, has been verbally attacking this elite, which has been the main opposition:
Chávez wanted more criticism, not less. Until then, provoking the opposition had been like hitting a political piñata: the harder Chávez struck, the more electoral candy he got.
Thus, every time the opposition, which was (at least in the eyes of the people) tied to the elite, objected, Chavez rallied popular support and validated. This elite opposition tried to launch a coup in 2002. How did that turn out?
For more than five years, Chávez has exploited the events of April 11 much the same way Bush has exploited September 11: as a basis for expanding executive power. The coup has provided the main justification for purging the military, packing the Supreme Court, removing RCTV from the public airwaves and, most recently, proposing a constitutional amendment that would empower the president to suspend due process rights indefinitely. Chávez and his supporters have repeatedly condemned presumed coup supporters in the court of public opinion but have shown less interest in trying them in a court of law. In this sense, they have proven themselves to be, like many of their opponents, more concerned with pursuing power than promoting the rule of law.
Finally, Chavez was rebuked in 2006, when his proposed package of amendments that would concentrate more power in his hands was defeated in a referendum. Why did he finally fail?
The referendum also failed because the government’s efforts to demonize its opponents fell flat. In the past, it was easy for Chávez to attack the opposition as undemocratic coup-mongers, given that at least some of them had indeed participated in the 2002 coup. But this time the “no” campaign was led largely by figures immune to that charge: university students who were teenagers in 2002, as well as Chávez’s former defense minister, Raúl Isaías Baduel, and former wife, Marisabel Rodríguez, both of whom played key roles in restoring him to power during the coup. It would seem that the distorting impact of the 2002 coup on Venezuelan politics, like that of 9/11 on US politics, is finally beginning to wane.
As students, we have a unique cultural -and therefore political- impact. Remember that.
Read the whole article (you really should!) here.