Saturday, November 24, 2007

Venezuelan Authoritarianism

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William Ratliff, at today's Los Angeles Times, provides a nice rejoinder to hard-left defenders of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez (recall yesterday's post on the little blogosphere dust-up over Chavez's authoritarianism).

Here's Ratliff's introduction:

On Dec. 2, Venezuelans will be asked to vote on a whopping 69 constitutional amendments that would greatly reduce the country's democratic governance, strip citizens of still more individual liberties and thus expand President Hugo Chavez's power even beyond what it is today. The sad reality is that voters will probably approve the amendments, as Chavez's opponents have been bumbling around, discredited, disorganized and intimidated.

The vote will be bad not only for Venezuela but for the rest of Latin America. Chavez-style demagogues -- Chavistas -- are taking control throughout the region, persuading frustrated voters to jettison their often unresponsive democratic governments for the promise of something better, even if that something is a populist dictatorship.

Chavez already has assumed some of the powers he wants legitimized in the upcoming referendum. Approving the changes will merely legalize what is already in place and further reduce the options and safeguards available to those who disagree with him and his vision of "21st century socialism."

One of the most disturbing ballot items would allow Chavez to run for president as often as he wishes and make it more difficult for voters to recall a president. He could become, in effect, president for life. Other ballot items would give Chavez greatly expanded control over the country's state and regional governments, its central bank and its international monetary reserves, and would extend his authority to expropriate private property.

Other ballot measures would increase presidential authority to declare and maintain a "state of emergency" for as long as the government deems necessary and significantly curtail the financial privileges of human rights groups, the media and other nongovernmental watchdog organizations. Still another dangerous ballot item would transform Venezuela's military from a conventional armed force intended to protect the people into a "patriotic and anti-imperialist" armed force intended to support the socialist revolution.

The article goes on to explain why the Venezuelan people would vote to dismantle their own freedoms (he notes, as I argued yesterday, that Venezuelan elections are far from free and fair).

It turns out that Michael Shifter over at Foreign Affairs has a new analysis of Venezuelan authoritarianism and the December referendum:

Hugo Chávez - a self-described revolutionary presiding over the world's fifth-largest oil producer - has certainly not lacked for either grand plans or the resources to carry them out in his nine years as president of Venezuela. So far, he has also deftly deflected criticism and overcome opposition. With his newest initiatives, however, he may be overreaching - threatening to stall his project both domestically and internationally.

On the national front, Chávez is resolutely consolidating his autocratic governance model. The National Assembly overwhelmingly approved the articles for a constitutional reform that will be submitted to a national referendum on December 2. The 69 amendments cover private property, social security, central bank autonomy, the length of the workday, and much more. But the centerpiece of the overall package is a reform to allow the Venezuelan president - but no other office holders - to be reelected indefinitely. Other proposed changes would give Chávez instruments to further control the economy and suppress dissent.

There is little doubt that Chávez's December 2 referendum will pass. After polls showed around 60 percent of Venezuelans opposed the indefinite reelection proposition, Chávez quickly added sweeteners, such as reducing the workday from eight to six hours. The political opposition continues to be divided and ambivalent about whether to participate in what they see as a rigged system. It was a shortsighted 2005 legislative boycott by the opposition that left the national assembly filled with only Chávez supporters.

Still, Chávez's not-so-subtle push to be ?president for life? has revealed one of the regime's real soft spots. Compounded by declining oil production, persistent corruption, skyrocketing crime rates, inflation, drug-trafficking, and continued infrastructure problems, these weaknesses have deepened fissures within the government coalition -and created openings for new opposition forces. In the National Assembly, the pro-Chávez Podemos party openly opposed the indefinite reelection measure. More significantly, student leaders - who emerged earlier this year when Chávez failed to renew the license for the RCTV station - have mobilized once again against Chávez's rush toward authoritarianism. These street demonstrations have highlighted Venezuela's sharp polarization (and led Chávez recently to hint that he may break the referendum into two or three blocks of amendments, which would be voted on independently).

Shifter's quick analysis makes Venezuela's situation sound more complicated that those who boast that Chavez "enjoys significant support among the majority of that nation's poor."

Note also that Foreign Policy published a penetrating article on Venezuela in January/February 2006, entitled "Hugo Boss." The article makes mincemeat of the rosy international view of the Chavez regime. Here's the article's conclusion, which puts Venezuelan authoritarianism in perspective:

Ultimately, all authoritarian regimes seek power by following the same principle. They raise society's tolerance for state intervention. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British philosopher, offered some tips for accomplishing this goal. The more insecurity that citizens face—the closer they come to living in the brutish state of nature—the more they will welcome state power. Chávez may not have read Hobbes, but he understands Hobbesian thinking to perfection. He knows that citizens who see a world collapsing will appreciate state interventions. Chávez therefore has no incentive to address Venezuela's assorted crises. Rather than mending the country's catastrophic healthcare system, he opens a few military hospitals for selected patients and brings in Cuban doctors to run ad hoc clinics. Rather than addressing the economy's lack of competitiveness, he offers subsidies and protection to economic agents in trouble. Rather than killing inflation, which is crucial to alleviating poverty, Chávez sets price controls and creates local grocery stores with subsidized prices. Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.

Like most fashion designers, Chávez is not a complete original. His style of authoritarianism has influences. His anti-Americanism, for instance, is pure Castro; his use of state resources to reward loyalists and punish critics is quintessential Latin American populism; and his penchant for packing institutions was surely learned from several market-oriented presidents in the 1990s.

Chávez has absorbed and melded these techniques into a coherent model for modern authoritarianism. The student is now emerging as a teacher, and his syllabus suits today's post-totalitarian world, in which democracies in developing countries are strong enough to survive traditional coups by old-fashioned dictators but besieged by institutional disarray. From Ecuador to Egypt to Russia, there are vast breeding grounds for competitive authoritarianism.

When President Bush criticized Chávez after November's Summit of the Americas in Argentina, he may have contented himself with the belief that Chávez was a lone holdout as a wave of democracy sweeps the globe. But Chávez has already learned to surf that wave quite nicely, and others may follow in his wake.

I touched on some of these points, with links, in my post yesterday. Of course, It never hurts to flesh things out in a little more detail.


UPDATE: From the Washington Post:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has lost his lead eight days before a referendum on ending his term limit, an independent pollster said on Saturday, in a swing in voter sentiment against the Cuba ally.

Forty-nine percent of likely voters oppose Chavez's proposed raft of constitutional changes to expand his powers, compared with 39 percent in favor, a survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed.

Just weeks ago, Chavez had a 10-point lead for his proposed changes in the OPEC nation that must be approved in a referendum, the polling company said.