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December 03, 2007

Venezuela Watch

It was definitely my understanding that, in totalitarian dictatorships, referenda meant to increase the powers of the executive do not, in fact, fail by two percent. And when they do, the dictator does not, in fact, say, "I congratulate my adversaries for this victory. For now, we could not do it.” Yet that's exactly what happened in Venezuela, where June 2005's "Dictator of the Month" went to the people for more power, and the people said no.

December 3, 2007 | Permalink


Prior to today, I'd always liked Chavez, but worried about his democratic bona-fides.

Today, I love Hugo.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 3, 2007 9:55:05 AM

Ya, if he follows through with acceptance of the result, then he certainly makes his foreign detractors (especially the foaming mouths in the US neo-con war hawk ranks) look kind of silly - in their denunciations of him as a dictator.

My guess is that his plan was overambitious (as he admitted), and that he'll take another (smaller) bite of the apple further down the road.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 3, 2007 10:22:45 AM

Ezra, are you trying to say that there's some kind of sharp cleavage between the categories of dictator and president?? If Chavez isn't a bona fine dictator, certainly he's still very close. And just because he conceded doesn't mean he won't be gracious now and try again later.

Petey: Does it bother you that economic socialism and dictatorship usually travel together? We're not talking Sweden here, after all. This is something much more severe and requires fairly anti-democratic institutions to maintain. Being for democracy and for Chavez certainly brings some tension with it.

Posted by: Selfreferencing | Dec 3, 2007 10:23:37 AM


It's not clear at all that Chavez makes his detractors look "silly". Instead, it makes him look mildly less dangerous than before the election. He was still *willing* and *eager* to undermine Venezuela's democracy and maintained that people who opposed him were traitors. That's still really bad.

Posted by: Selfreferencing | Dec 3, 2007 10:26:24 AM

"Petey: Does it bother you that economic socialism and dictatorship usually travel together?"

Selfreferencing: Does it bother you that economic rightism and facism usually travel together?

I'm a lefty and a democrat. Hence, today is Hugo Day in my world.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 3, 2007 10:29:30 AM

Those who want to dig a little deeper into the real story of Chavez and Venezuela will want to read a great piece by a Fulbright scholar named Brian Nelson in the most recent Virginia Quarterly Review, called "One Crowded Hour." It's about the 2002 coup, and why so many Venezuelans have turned against Chavez.

Short version: Hugo Chavez may not be all-powerful, but that doesn't mean he's a democrat.

Posted by: Kit Stolz | Dec 3, 2007 10:37:44 AM

"Short version: Hugo Chavez may not be all-powerful, but that doesn't mean he's a democrat."

Chavez is most definitely a democrat. The source of his power has always been his ability to win elections. And now he's demonstrated a willingness to abide by a defeat via fair elections while holding all the levers of power.

That's a democrat.

John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition acts, but that didn't make him not a democrat.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 3, 2007 10:41:18 AM

Petey, I see your point, but I will beliueve in Hugo Chavez when he leaves office at the end of his term. Until then, there's a little too much caudillo in the man.

That said, admitting you lost a close election is a big test. One that our own President has not yet mastered, and in fact failed when first administered.

Posted by: drfranklives | Dec 3, 2007 10:57:05 AM

It's wonderful that there was a vote, that it didn't go the leader's way, and there will still be order and acceptance of the result. None of that means the American left should give Chavez some giant bear hug; just that perhaps his "evil overlord" status has been oversold by the right. We are in this odd time where doing bare minimum things - like holding an election and, you know, accepting its outcome - is somehow a bold step. It's really a de minimus expectation of a democracy. I think people should cautiously watch what happens next, and hopefully more freedom and greater ability to express opposition to Chavez (like a free open media) will also become part of the mix.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 3, 2007 11:09:55 AM

The point is he was trying to achieve dictatorial powers through a referendum. It would not be the first time someone transformed a republic into a dictatorship through democratic means. Venezuala is still a democracy today-- Chavez hasn't achieved the absolute centralization of power he was seeking. That is a credit to the Venezualan people, not to Chavez.

Posted by: Dan S | Dec 3, 2007 11:10:07 AM


If you think Chavez is a democrat then you are projecting your political views on Chavez and all I can say is that YOU are not a democrat by American standards...at least not a mainstream one.

Chavez is an aspiring dictator who has succeeded at consolidating a lot of power and destroying institutions that we take for granted in a free society.

I don't give a damn whether he's left or right. He has a vision of a totalitarian socialist utopia.

Posted by: John V | Dec 3, 2007 11:37:03 AM

I think the interesting issue here is that there is not a bright shining line between democracy and dictatorship. Even dictatorships are contingent to greater and lesser degrees, and democracies have undemocratic features to greater or lesser degrees. Then you have places like Russia and Venezuela that are on the cusp. They look a lot like democracies, but haven't really been tested. By that, I mean that Chavez and Putin haven't really run for an election where the result is that they would lose power in which there was actually a reasonable chance that they would lose.

Would Chavez voluntarily cede power in such a circumstance? Would he even allow such an election to take place? I am not asking this because I think I know the answer--I don't. But many would-be caudillos and presidents-for-life start here. It's reasonable to worry.

Frankly, this result is great. Chavez offered the Venezuelan people a chance to make him dictator, they rejected it, and he accepted their rejection. It's a hopeful sign, to say the least.

Posted by: RWB | Dec 3, 2007 11:39:44 AM

My understanding is that he lost the morally conservative middle class when he proposed 69 amendments.

Posted by: ostap | Dec 3, 2007 11:43:56 AM

Lmao, dictators don't ever let these kinds of things fail. They certainly don't fail by amounts small enough to be overcome by last m9inute vote stuffing. A 'dictator' as it is conventionally defined, can not be a Democratically elected office. you would have to trace it's roots back to another language, when it meant someone else entirely, to get to a definition that at all comports to the reality of this situation.

Russia is well over the 'cusp' of dictatorship. It has never really been anything other than one, we just pretended it did when they stopped being communists so we could sweep that pesky 'freedom' rhetoric under the rug. Venezuela is a different situation entirely. As far as I can tell, Chavez's opponents have acted in a far more undemocratic way then he himself has.

Personally, I don't think Presidents should ever be term limited. As long as elections are held with some kind of regularity, term limits are themselves undemocratic in nature.1

Posted by: soullite | Dec 3, 2007 11:48:51 AM

Does anybody here understand how authoritarian governments work?

Most authoritarians glory in the "will of the people," and have done so ever since the French Revolution. They like to evidence the will of the people in plebiscites, the authoritarian's source of legitimacy. The plebiscites are not always rigged; e.g. Peronism, Mexico under the PRI.

In other words, voting is NOT the difference between an authoritarian regime and a democracy. A democracy tolerates and encourages competing power centers; authoritarian regimes do not. (As a corollary, democracies look askance on the cult of the personality; authoritarian regimes flourish on it.) Voting is merely one element of a democracy, and I don't think the most important one.

Chavez (like Bush, but with greater success) has been systematically demolishing competing power centers. His regime is therefore authoritarian, even if the elections are not rigged.

Posted by: Joe S. | Dec 3, 2007 12:01:24 PM

"Democratic" politics is not a virtue. Unhindered pursuit of Democracy is not a virtue.

Only a very restrained democratic government is anything less than tyrannical. The proposals made by Chavez and everything he's done in the past few years have been done democratically, but that's not something we should cheer for.

Undoing the restraints on democracy as proposed by Chavez is opening the door for the tyranny of the majority. It's only a short stone's throw away from that and full-blown dictatorship.

Democracy isn't the virtue. Restraint is. And Chavez doesn't show restraint.

Posted by: TanGeng | Dec 3, 2007 12:02:34 PM

Can we get some sort of election like that here in the USA? You know, maybe limiting the power of a batshit crazy president a tensy bit?

Posted by: chowchowchow | Dec 3, 2007 12:03:46 PM

By Petey's definition, Hitler was a democrat when he refused to overthrow Hindenburg when he lost the presidential election.

This isn't an equivalence of Hitler and Chavez (they aren't, not even close), merely a reductio.

There is a formal sense where any person who abides by a vote and uses majoritarian rule for one's ends is a democrat. But, of course, this ignores that such formal constraints aren't particularly meaningful without a substantive commitment to the democratic sense.

If Chavez does have those substantive commitments, then they are not apparent. The referendum was to elimnate checks on his power, and the final line of his "gracious acceptance" is the same line he used in his failed coup.

Again, Hitler himself decided to use the ballot box when the putsch failed...didn't make him a democrat. The fact that Chavez is ideologically more acceptable doesn't change the underlying dynamic.

(P.S. I think similar criticisms can be made of the current GOP, even if the greater strength of our democratic institutions makes this less obviously apparent.)

Posted by: PTS | Dec 3, 2007 12:09:37 PM

Ah, I see today's news has brought out the folks who admire the silly and paranoid maxim "Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner".

I'm no fan of Chavez, as I don't even care for American populism all that much. I'm encouraged that he seems to have accepted the results of the vote just ended. But I really find contemptible the cant and bullshit that his foes resort to. Chavez isn't Hitler, isn't even Castro or Saddam (neither of whom is anywhere close to Hitler). More like the Huey Long of Venezuela (not a good thing, especially from my anti-populist perspective, but obviously not This Era's Face of Evil).

Posted by: kth | Dec 3, 2007 12:45:47 PM

Procedural democracy is about the mechanics of determining majority opinion through things like elections. Chavez did abide by the process.

But substantive democracy is about more than votes. It's about the protection of free speech, enabling so-called loyal opposition, fostering human development without preconditions on political loyalty and so on. In this area, Chavez has an unsettling record (shutting down opposition media, weakening central government checks and balances) and the referendum itself was an attempt to further consolidate power into his command.

While some might think that his acceptance of the loss might counter the demonization he has received, I am more concerned that the current administration will instead see him as a weakened demon and do something stupid.

Personally, I don't think that this loss signifies a very significant change in his popular support. If he had split up the 69 questions instead of having one single up or down vote, many of those would have passed. As a matter of fact, the whole package was up by eight points or so on the eve of the election. So, maybe the Chavista machinery is squeaky, but that doesn't mean it's gone. I really hope Washington interprets this correctly.

Posted by: Julio | Dec 3, 2007 12:47:52 PM

I know we can all be contentious and stuff... but this has been a really useful discussion, at least for me. I appreciate the comments I'm seeing, and I'm learning (and remembering) a bit from each of them. Thanks! :)

Posted by: weboy | Dec 3, 2007 1:01:48 PM

Amazing what just a change in a name can do to enlighten the discussion: (with apologies to drfranklives)

I will believe in Hugo Chavez George Bush when he leaves office at the end of his term. Until then, there's a little way too much caudillo in the man.

Look folks, many latin American countries have been politically and economically dominated by a thin crust of the most wealthy, since, well, forever. Chavez (and some other lefty leaders in other S.A. countries reflects what happens when the old centers of power are finally (and maybe temporarily) swept aside in a tide of economic resentment by that vast swath of the population that are have-nots. In no sense have these countries been governed for the general welfare. Some day, for each of them, the tide reverses. Mexico almost did so. Bolivia seems to have done it. Brazil is trying in a different way.

Chavez is just the voice and organizer of feelings and beliefs that preexist in the voters - except this time they actually had a choice when they re-elected him after the conservative putsch failed a few years ago (even with US backing and money). The pendulum swings, and when it swings too far right for too long, it will swing too far left for at least a while.

The parable is certainly applicable to the US as well, I hope. Our long rightist nightmare under Reagan and Post-Reagan may be nearly over. A healthy dose of economic and political populism is way overdue, here and in many other places. We should welcome it, as our constitution specifically says we are in this together 'to promote the general welfare' - with the strong implication that the general welfare is not connected with the concentration of wealth and power that we (and other democratic and semi-democratic countries) experience.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 3, 2007 1:02:04 PM

The notion that a ballot proposition to end presidential term limits is dictatorial is ludicrous. He wasn't going to be "President for Life." If he'd won, he simply would have been able to run again for reelection.

By this standard, the United States was a dictatorship until 1947 when we passed the 22nd Amendment, after suffering under the regime of strongman Franklin Roosevelt.

Posted by: Jason C. | Dec 3, 2007 1:02:34 PM

It ain't over 'till its over. Time will tell. There is no doubt that Chaves WANTS dictatorship or he wouldn't have held the vote in the first place. The real test will be if he cedes or if he looks at the election as a bump in the road to his goal of power and seeks another method.

My money is on the latter.

Posted by: El viajero | Dec 3, 2007 1:06:46 PM

This bothers me greatly when discussing Chavez's aspirations.

Posted by: El viajero | Dec 3, 2007 1:16:08 PM

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