For a long time, I’ve defended Hugo Chavez. I thought that he was fighting a worthy battle against greed and corruption, against years of foreign domination and cronyism. I thought he was trying to improve the lives of poor people, while establishing a strong economy, an independent and self-respecting nation, and a vibrant democracy.
But now, after watching events unfold in the past few months, I’m ready to admit that I was mistaken.
Like many of those who lean left, I figured that Chavez’s megalomaniacal governing qualities were a bit unnerving, but not anything serious to be worried about. In retrospect, I realize that I was willing to overlook his authoritarian tendencies because of one main thing: his avowed commitment to social justice issues and his dedication to ending poverty.
Recently, however, I’ve changed my mind in a major way. Although I have tried to remain optimistic, Chavez’s actions in the past few months clearly indicate that he is set on becoming a dictator. Perhaps a dictator dedicated to the poor, but a dictator nonetheless. The evidence is abundant (though I will just list a few of the most recent examples). In late 2006, for instance, Chavez canceled the operating license for RCTV, the second-largest tv channel in Venezuela and one of the most public forums for opposition to his regime. Was it just anti-Chavez activists who called foul to this act of censorship? Not at all. Indeed, JosÃ© Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, referred to the incident as “clearly a case of censorship and the most grave step back in the region since [the 1990s media crackdown of Peru's Alberto] Fujimori.”
Then, in late January of 2007, in an unbelievably bold act, Chavez passed through the Venezuelan legislature a measure that gave him the power to rule by decree. For eighteen months, he was granted the ability to make sweeping economic and social changes without the direct consent of the legislature. Most recently, as The New York Times is now reporting, Chavez has decided to unveil a plan that would get rid of presidential term limits entirely. Unfortunately, with control of all branches of government, it looks like this blatantly undemocratic effort to become ruler-for-life might actually succeed:
Willian Lara, the communications minister, said Mr. ChÃ¡vez would announce the project before the National Assembly, where all 167 lawmakers support the president. Supporters of Mr. ChÃ¡vez, who was re-elected last year with some 60 percent of the vote, also control the Supreme Court, the entire federal bureaucracy, public oil and infrastructure companies and every state government but two.
Meanwhile, Chavez appears to be establishing a cult of personality, not unlike other authoritarian leaders:
As Mr. ChÃ¡vez, 53, settles into his ninth year in power, images of him have become impossible to avoid here. On billboards, posters and murals, he is seen hugging children, embracing old women, chanting slogans and plugging energy-saving Cuban light bulbs into sockets.
The sum of these recent developments, combined with previous measures to stack the courts and the legislature, have solidified Chavez’s rule to the point where there should no longer be any doubt about the direction in which the country is headed. Chavez is pushing for dictatorial-like powers and there seems to be little hope, at least in the near future, of re-establishing any semblance of democratic governance.
Unfortunately, many of us on the left have been silent on this issue for far too long. While we have been quick to criticize our own administration and other foreign governments (think Vladimir Putin) for undemocratic policies, there has been a tendency to overlook the authoritarian governing styles of leftist regimes like that of Venezuela. For some reason — probably because these leaders profess the dogma of economic equality and social reform — many of us on the left have defended these liberal autocrats.
But it’s time to wake up and get our priorities straight. We should not be blind to what is going on in Venezuela. We can no longer forgive Chavez’s dictatorial tendencies merely because of his avowed commitment to the country’s poor. Indeed, it is a grave mistake to overlook tyranny or authoritarianism even when it is couched in the rhetoric of liberal reform and social justice. Ultimately, while Chavez’s vision of an end to poverty and the creation of a more equitable society is an honorable and an important one, his way of achieving these goals is not. Upholding democracy is infinitely more important than any of these other aims.