Last year, President Hugo Chávez staked much of his considerable political capital on a national referendum featuring sixty-nine proposed amendments to Venezuela's Constitution. Given that Chávez had won all five national votes he'd faced since he took office in 1999, including the 2006 presidential election, when he garnered 63 percent of the vote, the referendum's defeat in December was a dramatic turnaround. But the outcome was actually the best thing that could have happened, if not for Chávez himself then certainly for the "Bolivarian" movement he has led for more than a decade.
The referendum was the most recent flashpoint in the often high-stakes and always high-decibel struggle that has raged for years between Chávez's supporters and his critics, with each side fully convinced that it is protecting Venezuelan democracy from the other. Unfortunately, the substance of their competing claims has been largely drowned out by polemics that reduce the country's complex political dynamics to a single question: is Chávez a dictator or a democrat? Those who say "dictator" see a military strongman who has exploited high oil prices to buy political support--at home through clientelistic social programs, abroad through gratuitous jabs at an unpopular US President--while seizing control of the country's political institutions. Those who say "democrat" see a charismatic leader of a vibrant popular movement intent on deepening democracy--in Venezuela by empowering the poor, abroad by defying the political and economic dogmas of Washington and Wall Street on behalf of the entire region.
Given the deep disenchantment with democratic institutions that exists throughout much of Latin America today, the political transformation under way in Venezuela deserves to be the subject of a vigorous regional debate. Instead what we've gotten has been more like a shouting match, with the Washington-Caracas mudslinging topping the international headlines. Donald Rumsfeld compares Chávez to Hitler, George H.W. Bush calls him an ass, Pat Robertson calls for his assassination. Chávez, meanwhile, denounces George W. Bush as an assassin, a coward, a drunk, a donkey, a birdie and, most famously, the devil. Condoleezza Rice calls Chávez a tyrant who is "really, really destroying his own country"; Chávez quips that Rice is an illiterate in need of a husband.
Predictably, the diatribes avoid the many knotty questions about Chávez and his presidency. If he is such a dictator, why has he won so many internationally validated elections? Why have his opponents remained so vocal and active? And why was the opposition able to defeat him in the 2007 referendum? Conversely, if Chávez is such a democrat, why has he embraced Fidel Castro--a full-fledged authoritarian who, for decades, imprisoned his critics and quashed internal dissent--as his mentor and model? Why has he aggressively undermined the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary and concentrated power so heavily in the president's office? And why, most recently, did he use the referendum to seek sweeping powers to suspend due process rights in times of emergency?
The failed referendum did not end the polemics. But for the many, more sober observers caught in the middle, it did help to clarify the actual state of Venezuelan democracy. Chávez's defeat was proof that Venezuela today is not a dictatorship. Still, the authoritarian tendencies of Chávez's government, while exaggerated by some of his critics, are very real. His supporters may excuse them as responses to the problem of political exclusion that is, undoubtedly, a more fundamental threat to democracy throughout the region. But unless those authoritarian tendencies are curbed, the Bolivarian dream of overcoming this exclusion will almost certainly remain unfulfilled.
Like most Latin Americans, Venezuelans know all about exclusion. Yet unlike most others, they tend to associate it with the political system touted elsewhere as its most promising antidote: representative democracy. The reason is historical: during the 1980s and '90s, when other countries in the region were making tortured transitions away from military dictatorship or one-party rule, Venezuelans were stuck with a standard three-branch, two-party democracy that was, by all accounts, a disaster.
Venezuela's pre-Chávez system was put in place in 1958 through a power-sharing pact between the two mainstream parties (as well as a third, small leftist party) that aimed to prevent the sort of concentration of power that had given rise to a military dictatorship ten years earlier. For several decades it had served as the poster child for democracy in the region--at least among political scientists who specialized in the subject. In his introduction to Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era, historian Steve Ellner identifies the supposedly "positive aspects" that earned the respect of (mostly) foreign academics. It was a two-party system in which the parties were highly institutionalized, with multiclass membership and predominantly middle-class leaders who eschewed sectarian attitudes, ideological agendas and ultranationalistic rhetoric, and who were willing and able to resolve their differences through interparty agreements. This arrangement--according to the democracy experts--is what allowed Venezuela to escape the extreme polarization and violence ravaging the rest of the continent at the time.
But then one morning in February 1989, the model democracy exploded. The proximate cause was a hike in gasoline prices, which prompted a hike in bus fares that in turn provoked angry reactions from would-be passengers throughout Caracas and in cities around the country. Spontaneous street demonstrations erupted into riots and rampant looting. After a delayed and fumbling response, the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez sent troops into the streets to restore order, which they managed to do only after killing hundreds of civilians, mostly by means of extrajudicial executions.