Until a suitable name is found for it, to define what is evolving in Venezuela as a dictatorship can be as wrong as calling it a democracy. Whether Venezuela is moving towards a “demodura” or “dictocracia” is not merely philosophical, nor is it a semantic debate. Though it may look like a sterile discussion, the issue is far from useless, especially under the present circumstances.
Contemporary autocratic regimes cannot be measured by the same yardstick used to assess dictatorships of the previous century; while they resemble each other, they are not able to behave in the same way, owing to both internal and external constraints. Progressively global democratic consciousness plus several nongovernmental organizations fostering democratic values, human rights and the rule of law, constitute a formidable obstacle to totalitarian governments. Today’s globalized environment makes every citizen part of a world public opinion.
New autocracies must pretend to be democratic in order to be accepted as such by the international community. Today’s would-be dictators no longer resort to the use of sheer force, but to less obvious ways of controlling the population, to avoid being castigated by the international community.
Perverse use of computer technology and the mass media - especially television - have largely replaced the use of physical force to repress ideas and dissent, and to instill fear. The drawing up of lists of dissidents is not a simple and casual whim of some twisted mind, but a deliberate policy of segregation with the clear intent to intimidate and punish. The endless propaganda to which the public is subjected, usually on the basis of concocted figures, half-truths or simply false allegations, is not coincidental. Much less so is the conscious adulteration of history - changing names of places and institutions, fabricating false heroes, and unlimited repetition of the most obvious myths. All this is intended to replace obsolete, politically incorrect methods.
Out of the need to maintain the appearance of a democratic government, today’s autocracies must resort to more subtle forms of restricting freedom, eroding rights and subjugating wills, including:
- Frequent elections, even though the electoral authority is of questionable fairness and subject to unlimited government dominance.
- The illusion of a sound and independent judicial power, which in practice does not provide justice and is in fact a regime weapon.
- Existence of a nominally independent legislature, guided by the executive.
- An alleged constitutional and legal order, regularly violated with no institutional counterweights preventing it.
- A nominally free press, increasingly restricted by government “guidance” and “suggested” self-censorship.
Following the defeat of the “reform” initiative in the constitutional referendum of December 2007, the government defied public opinion by deploying hundreds of billboards with the shocking message “por ahora” (“for now”). Last July, the president decreed a package of 26 laws that ignore the result of the referendum and reverse a long and popular decentralization process, thus emphasizing the autocracy’s commitment to rule as it wishes.
Throughout 2008, against the wishes of the majority of Venezuelans and in complementary fashion, the Chavez regime has deepened its relations with the most undemocratic regimes on the planet - China, Iran, North Korea and Russia - and intensified its extensive, bordering on grotesque, relationship with Havana.
Finally, following last November’s local and regional elections, resulting in a major advance for the democratic opposition and significant erosion of regime support, the government refuses to acknowledge the setback, does not recognize the recently elected authorities, and works to sabotage their performance, maintaining the country in a false dilemma between democracy and autocracy.
Before completing the current presidential term in 2012, the Chavez regime must deal with crucial parliamentary elections in 2010, and the embarrassing possibility of a new presidential recall referendum. Against this background and before the inexorable economic, political and social storm, the government has essentially chosen to escape forward, seeking approval for unlimited presidential terms for Mr. Chavez before economic and social conditions worsen in the coming months.
Unfortunately for the country, rather than returning to a democratic, pluralistic, civil, decentralized government, the president insists on subjugating Venezuelans to an idiosyncratic blend of militaristic, statist, corrupt, intolerant and exclusionary populist autocracy.
Even more serious, the current campaign to “amend” the constitution via referendum to establish indefinite presidential re-election is contrary to the constitutional principle of limited presidential service and has gravely disturbed the country. A two-term limit was clearly prescribed in the 1999 constitution, written under Hugo Chavez‘s supervision.
His clear objective is to prolong himself in power indefinitely. If he can win the popular vote, he will try to impose his will without limit. But on the other hand, if despite unlimited propaganda the government loses, it would open a Pandora’s box of conflict between the regime and a strengthened opposition.
Before facing the eventual defeat of “Bolivarian socialism,” there could be significant temptation to abandon the last vestiges of a democratic government. The inability to practice politics in a democratic way and not as an ongoing battle between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries seems to confirm this.
The National Assembly approved the proposal in a swift “debate” and the National Electoral Council has confirmed the referendum date for Feb. 15, both predictably acceding to Mr. Chavez’s desires.
In the meantime, a real debate over the legal and political pros and cons of the amendment has been completely absent from the political campaign. Supporters of a “No” vote have been busy exposing the general drawbacks of the idea. Those in favor of the president’s proposal emphasize the still significant but fading emotional attachment to Hugo Chavez, rather than indulge in serious debate.
In the event of popular approval of such an “amendment” to ensure the president’s indefinite leadership of the “revolution,” Venezuela will have taken a major step in the unusual and paradoxical task of destroying democracy through the ballot box.
A vote as simple as a choice between a “Yes” and a “No” has never been so important for Venezuelans - and, it can be argued, for democracy throughout the Americas.
Norman Pino is a retired Venezuelan career diplomat. He served as ambassador in Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands, among other diplomatic assignments.