Venezuela: Chavez & Perpetual Rule

by Rick Rockwell

Venezuela’s socialist democracy seems near the tipping point. The dramatic win by President Hugo Chavez this past weekend in a national referendum clears the way for Venezuela’s president to run again for office in 2012 when he would have faced term limits.

By that point, Chavez will have been in office for 13 years, winning almost every national electoral challenge before him, including constitutional revisions, term extensions, recalls and the like.

As a true democrat, this author does not believe in term limits. However, even if Chavez can engineer another electoral win in three years, isn’t his personal crusade to deliver Venezuela from its elite oligarchy starting to produce negative democratic results? If Chavez chooses to run again (and he has said he will) isn’t he becoming more like one of the many Liberal authoritarians or autocrats of the past two centuries in Latin America, rather than a socialist reformer? If he runs yet again, isn’t he the very epitome of the Latin American caudillo, the strong man?

Like his hero, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Chavez has become blinded to the idea that anyone else can run his revolution. Actually, in his later years, Castro came to an understanding that building institutions, turning over large swaths of power to his brother and the Cuban military, and bringing in a new generation of leaders would guarantee the Cuban revolution had a life beyond Fidel. But Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution is different. It didn’t ride into power on the wave of a successful guerrilla movement. Yes, it was borne of Chavez’ charisma during a failed coup attempt, and Chavez’ unrelenting campaign for reform even from prison. The Bolivarian revolution has been fought with ballots, not bullets. Chavez’ latest victory is just another on that scorecard. And in those victories lies the hubris that may undercut Chavez later, just as he lost an attempt at constitutional reform 14 months ago because he was not only too eager but also too arrogant in the face of a changing opposition movement.

This time, Chavez was ready.

Some will undoubtedly defend Chavez for wanting to retain power and see his revolution through to the point where the needs of the poor are completely addressed and the power of the oligarchy is torn down. How is he any different from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, who wanted to stay in office in the U.S. to end the Depression and see the country through World War II? Despite coming from the elite, FDR had his own social revolution to see through and he campaigned successfully to win four terms to do it. But when FDR died not too far into that fourth term, the legacy was the wrong-headed Twenty-second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

However, as President Thomas Jefferson has noted, if a president is not to in effect become a monarch then at some point they must leave, and leave behind them a political system that will continue to see their reforms through at the hands of other democrats, or fail to the vagaries of the democratic system.

So in posting his most recent victory, did Chavez seek what will inevitably be an anti-democratic outcome by employing some of the same pressure tactics of the past to subtly coerce voters? This is where the caudillo shows a new 21st Century sophistication.

Here’s what unfolded during the referendum campaign:

If this is the picture of a socialist democracy at work, one that’s been in office for a decade, then the question remains if another term will really make any difference, except to further deepen Chavez’ personal control of the system.

(For more background on Chavez and Venezuela, please see: "Venezuela's Media War: The Latest Battle;" and "The Closing of Venezuela's RCTV & Leftist Orthodoxy.")

(The photo of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is from an international conference in Brazil from earlier this year; the photo is by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom of Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons license.)

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