Chávez – Dictator Or Democrat?


chaveznodFirebrand, despot, demagogue, Marxist, champion of the poor, anti-imperialist, autocrat, dictator, populist, Bolívarian disciple, buffoon, revolutionary, socialist, democrat, Latin American uniter, soldier, social reformer, human rights abuser, catholic, icon, hero.

That such a wide array of words have been used to describe the late Hugo Chavez speaks volumes; he remains one of the most divisive and controversial figures of recent history. In the hundreds of pieces written about him – and no doubt, the influx of obituaries over the next few days – there will severely contrasting accounts.

Adored – even worshipped – by some, Chavez was the anti-imperialist, US-vilifier and embodiment of the last socialist hope in the age of global capitalism and American hegemonic governance. To others, he was nothing more than an elected despot, who – slowly, but surely – tightened his grip over Venezuela, essentially destroying any real opposition in his wake.

Yet, the accusations of a ‘dictatorship’ are wrong in so many ways. In a continent with a rich history of despots – from Pinochet to Duvalier to Leopoldo Galtieri (+Argentinean Juntas) to Noriega – Hugo Chavez is not one of them. He has consistently sought and won power in elections; all of which were declared relatively free and legitimate and with a far higher winning percentage majorities than many Western nations leaders gain (or can even dream of gaining). Ex-US President Jimmy Carter even went so far as to call Venezuela’s election process as the “best in the world” – hyperbolic for sure, but turnout in Venezuela still ranks in the high 70s percentage wise. In his tenure, Chavez also survived an US-backed coup d’état attempt in 2002 as well as a public referendum on his leadership in 2004. This is a man who led through a public mandate, nothing else.

Instead, he choose to rule from his hospital bed, rather than cede power to his Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, ignoring a constitutional requirement in the process. Such an action only revealed how he was determined to retain power at all costs – even when he was simultaneously losing power over his own body.

Indeed, even many of Chavez’s opponents would find it difficult to argue against this, with democracy flourish in the South American nation. There were/are no camps; no gulags; no mass arrests of political adversaries; no banning of the opposition; no night-time raids on outspoken critics: essentially, no terror. To thus compare him to leaders who rule primarily through such methods is foolish at best; blind-sighted as worst. Moreover, this ‘despot’ has willingly accepted decisions that have been detrimental to his power  – including stepping down during the 2002 coup as well as a narrow loss in a 2007 referendum on constitutional reform. Hardly the stuff of a dictator then.

Undoubtedly though, there is a case to be made that Chavez has become an elected autocrat; or, to use a phrase of political science, a proponent of competitive authoritarianism. The general traits of such a system do seem to ring true for Venezuela. Dominated by strong leader? Check. Limited democratic freedoms and liberal values outside of elections? Check. Constitutional and judicial changes to augment personal power? Check.

Indeed, after only two years into Chavez’s tenure, there were such warning signs. A public referendum on whether the country needed a constitutional assembly received overwhelming support; the body was soon voted in and – despite 900 opposition candidates – 95% of those voted in were Chavez-supporters, concentrating all power with the President. Constitutional reform soon followed with the formation of a unicameral house and greater Presidential powers such a longer term and the ability to legislate on citizen issues. The formation of a prolonged Constitutional dictatorship if you will.

Nonetheless, it was after 2002 – after the coup – when Chavez really began concentrating and levelling all power in the hands of himself and key allies with government and its institutions becoming firmly centralised around him. In 2004, the Judiciary and Supreme Court lost their independence, essentially becoming appendages of the executive and losing their function as a check on the President’s power. Instead, they became tools of the government; used for political purposes more than any other role.

The story of Maria Lourdes Afiuni is a case of point in the ever-expanding intolerance to those who dissented against the late-president. Afiuni was a judge who released a high-profile banker accused of fraud (he also happened to be a prominent government critic); Chavez, furious at the decision, accused her of being bribed and detained her without trial. She spent more than a year in prison in deplorable conditions – and was allegedly raped – with several threats to her life from criminals she herself had imprisoned. Noam Chomsky, the famous Linguistics professor and US foreign policy critic, denounced his ‘old friend’ over the incident – but in his later years, Chavez used many similar bullying techniques to shut down any such opposition.

By his second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda.

Human Rights Watch

In regards to media, Chavez accused many television networks of orchestrating the 2002 coup against him, thus soon established media hegemony. Anti-government radio and television channels were either closed, blocked or censored; Venezuela ranking 124th in the world on press freedom in 2009, according to Reporters Without Borders. Furthermore, state-media was often saturated  with coverage of the President during election periods, especially as all channels were obliged by law to show 10 minutes of state broadcasts a day. Elections were therefore free from balloting stuffing and intimidation, but there was some tilting of the pitch to say the least.

Human rights scrutiny was also rejected – many NGOs, international organisations and human rights defenders either blocked or discredited and thus unable to monitor the government’s actions. In September last year, Venezuela also withdrew from the American Convention on Human Rights. Anything seen to question the government deemed seemingly unacceptable; there were notable mass firings of public employees who had signed recall petitions for the 2004 referendum.

This steady erosion of democratic freedoms is plain to see and casts a shadow over Chavez’s time in office; his restrictions of the free press, wavering commitment to human rights standards and subversion of the judiciary only serving to cement his power. It is not by sheer luck that he was both the -somewhat paradoxical – most elected leader in the modern era as well as the longest-serving head of state in the Americas.


Indeed, Chavez’s lust for power has never seemed more desperate than in the last few months of his life. After winning a fourth term of office in December last year, Chavez quickly withdrew from public life by announcing that he was still in the throes of his cancer battle. He was never seen by the Venezuelan people again, failing to even attend his own inauguration in January. Instead, he choose to rule from his hospital bed, rather than cede power to his Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, ignoring a constitutional requirement in the process. Such an action only revealed how he was determined to retain power at all costs – even when he was simultaneously losing power over his own body. It casts a gloomy ending to his legacy with Venezuela now plunged into a dangerous vacuum and political turmoil; one in which the result remains very much unknown.

Yet, the stark reality is that despite his flaws, Chavez has presided over a  government that has remained democratic and liberal at its core. There have been little signs of any serious nor extensive human rights violations; private media remains at the forefront of Venezuelan politics; and during the election last year, Henrique Capriles’ face was plastered over thousands of billboards across the country.

It is not by sheer luck that he was both the most elected leader in the modern era as well as the longest-serving head of state in the Americas.

Moreover, many of post-2002 actions can be justified somewhat; an illegal coup, against the publicly-backed government is more illegitimate than the actions of Chavez afterwards. Indeed, despite the fact that both Capriles and private media sources were heavily involved in the attempted overthrow, most perpetrators were treated leniently –  the worst incident being the refusal to renew a licence to one of the involved broadcasters.

Why then has Chavez always received such negative press? His many accomplishments often cast aside, replaced with idle, ignorant and throwaway labels. In a continent where military leaders have gone on to imprison, torture and murder opponents, Chavez has only been a progressive force and a breath of fresh air in Latin American politics.

He may have worn the red beret and camouflage fatigues, fitted the caricature of a South American despot and been a anti-US socialist; the truth, though, is that he was no tyrant.


Discussion8 Comments

  1. avatar

    Chomsky’s ‘denouncement’ was actually very limited, he accused the Observer of massively overstating his criticism.

    Don’t worry, he didn’t accidentally say something sensible

    Alexander James Green

    Yeah, I actually saw this, but felt it was worthy of a mention nonetheless.

    Can’t believe you don’t like Chomsky though.

    Samuel Gilonis

    My fondness for mouldy knitwear and Hebrew names aside, I think he swerved off the road at some point in the last couple of decades…

  2. avatar

    This is one of the best pieces on Chavez I’ve ever read. There’s so much contrary propaganda from his adulators and detractors that it is difficult to get a balanced perspective from outside of Venezuela.

    In some respects Chavez dying is the best possible move with regards to his legacy. It never ends pretty when someone is in power for that length of time and its better that he’s remembered for his past achievements than what could have been a descent into further despotism.

    It will be very interesting to see what happens in Venezuela now. Hopefully they won’t succumb to neoliberalism too quickly…

    Alexander James Green

    Thanks Nick!
    I do agree that the problem with assessing Chave’z time as President is that he conjures up such strong feelings in people that most either showed unabated sycophancy or strong repugnance – even with journalists. Most have a stance and fail to mention that he is too complicated to fit into their neat categories. (alot of the bad press being primarily because he opposed neoliberalism)

    On that though, he did show an increasing level of authoritarianism as time progressed, thus the fact he died with a still fairly good legacy in tact is undoubtedly a good thing. If you weigh what he achieved and his values above his quest for power, I generally feel he was a force for good in Venezuela.

    Samuel Gilonis

    I imagine that if we were looking at Libya in the 70s or 80s when wealth was being redistributed in a really impressive way (unlike in Venezuela) and the free press was being shut down that you would have said the same of Qaddafi, that he was a force for good. Twenty years later, Libya – a country with huge oil wealth – was destitute! In Chavez’s $80 million presidential airbus and Armani suits and collection of Patek Phillipe watches I don’t see somebody who really cared about anybody but himself…

  3. avatar
    Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

    Ok my turn to comment on your article! Firstly I want to thank you for your comments on mine. I have enjoyed a genuine discussion about Chávez, without it turning nasty, which happens so easily with politics.

    Unfortunately I didn’t read your article at first, I saw title and assumed it would be a pro-Chavez ‘he’s a democrat’ one (there have been so many, I just couldn’t handle another one!)

    But reading it, I think you bring up some important good, and some important bad. Your issue I believe is about people being too ready to label him either democrat or dictator, when in fact he does not fit the definition of either.

    I am as you know, very anti-Chavez, but I can recognise that some good was done. His legal legitimacy was, well legal in he official sense of the word, but he increasingly he toed the line, and manipulated the law himself where he was. If he had continued in power, this would only have continued as well.

    I like your balance and acknowledgment of different arguments. It’s something rarely seen in opinion writing.

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