The Repeatedly Re-Elected Autocrat
Painting Chávez as a 'would-be
by Steve Rendall
FAIR, http://www.fair.org/, December
Hugo Chávez never had a chance
with the U.S. press. Shortly after his first electoral victory
in 1998, New York Times Latin America reporter Larry Rohter (12/20/98)
summed up his victory thusly:
All across Latin America, presidents and
party leaders are looking over their shoulders. With his landslide
victory in Venezuela's presidential election on December 6, Hugo
Chávez has revived an all-too-familiar specter that the
region's ruling elite thought they had safely interred: that of
the populist demagogue, the authoritarian man on horseback known
as the caudillo.
Notwithstanding that interring caudillos
has not been a consuming passion of Latin America's ruling elite
(or U.S. policy makers), it is fitting that the Times reporter
sided with that elite. A few years later, in April 2002, following
Chávez's re-election by an even greater margin, Times editors
cheered a coup against Chávez by Venezuelan elites (Extra!
Update, 6/02), declaring in Orwellian fashion that thanks to the
overthrow of the elected president, "Venezuelan democracy
is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator."
For Pedro Carmona-the man who took power
in Chávez's brief absence, declaring an actual dictatorship
by dismissing the Venezuelan legislature, Supreme Court and other
democratic institutions-Times editors had much nicer language,
calling the former head of Venezuela's chamber of commerce "a
respected business leader."
Following Chávez's return to office
a few days later, Times editors issued a grudging reappraisal
of their coup endorsement (Extra! Update!, 6/02). Still insisting
that Chávez was "a divisive and demagogic leader,"
the editors averred that the forcible removal of a democratically
elected leader "is never something to cheer."
As if this pro-opposition bias were not
enough, in January 2003 the Times was forced to dismiss one of
its Venezuela reporters, a Venezuelan national named Francisco
Toro, when it was revealed that Toro was an anti-Chávez
activist (FAIR Action Alert, 6/6/03).
The Times anti-Chávez campaign
was manifest in a recent book review (9/17/06) of Nikolas Kozloff's
Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the United
States, in which Times business columnist Roger Lowenstein rebuked
the author for praising the Chávez government, explaining
that Chávez "has militarized the government, emasculated
the country's courts, intimidated the media, eroded confidence
in the economy and hollowed out Venezuela's once-democratic institutions."
But Lowenstein failed to provide much evidence for his charges-a
frequent characteristic of Chávez bashing-or to note that
similar charges can be made against other governments, including
one much closer to home.
The New York Times is not alone. A Newsweek column (11/7/05) asserted
that Venezuela has turned to "destructive populism"
under Chávez, while a news report in the magazine (10/31/05)
cited the "increasingly authoritarian tilt of the Chávez
regime, which has packed the Venezuelan judiciary with pliable
magistrates and enacted legislation curtailing press freedoms."
In his May 2006 Atlantic profile, New Republic editor Franklin
Foer complained that under Chávez's presidency Venezuela
had taken an "anti-democratic turn."
The Washington Post's news pages have
relentlessly criticized Chávez in news stories, calling
him "autocratic" (8/12/04) and "authoritarian"
(8/7/06). However, a much more ferocious campaign is waged against
Chávez on the Post's editorial and op-ed pages. In one
column after another, the Post's opinion pages have charged him
with assaulting democracy and stifling dissent. In one column
(10/16/06), deputy editorial editor Jackson Diehl called Chávez
an "autocratic demagogue" and accused him of "dismantl[ing]
Venezuela's democracy." Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt
(12/26/05) explained that Chávez had "consolidated
one-party rule and moved to export his brand of populist autocracy
to neighboring nations."
Even putative liberal commentators have
joined the media chorus. On the O'Reilly Factor (12/5/05), Fox
News contributor and NPR reporter Juan Williams said of Venezuela,
"What you're seeing there is really communism." In September,
when Democratic operatives Paul Begala and James Carville appeared
on New York City public radio station WNYC (9/25/06), Begala told
host Brian Lehrer that Chávez was "an autocrat, not
a democrat," and said he had "a terrible human rights
record." Carville told Lehrer, "I've worked in Venezuela
and I would be very reluctant to call Chávez a democrat."
What Carville didn't say was that he worked in Venezuela as an
advisor to Venezuelan opposition groups leading an economically
devastating strike by managers of the national oil company in
an effort to destabilize the government (Washington Post, 1/20/03).
Is Venezuela undemocratic? And is Hugo
Chávez an autocrat who has consolidated one-party rule?
An examination of Venezuelan elections, governing institutions
and public opinion indicates otherwise.
Venezuela has held half-a-dozen major elections for national offices
and issues since 1998, the year of Chávez's first presidential
victory. That election saw Chávez beating his nearest rival
by 16 percentage points, 56 percent to 40 percent, in a vote that
former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called "a remarkable demonstration
of democracy in its purest form." (Chicago Tribune, 12/8/98.)
In 2000, in a re-election required by the new Venezuelan constitution,
Chávez increased his winning margin, 60 percent to 38 percent.
In each case the elections were monitored and certified by a variety
of observers including the Organization of American States, the
European Union and the Carter Center.
A 1999 referendum backed by Chávez,
which called for the convening of a constituent assembly to draft
a new Venezuelan constitution, passed with 72 percent of the vote,
in an election likewise certified by international observers.
The resulting constitution, which strengthened the office of the
president, also set up clear checks and balances between five
branches of government, including a provision for a recall vote
to remove the president after the mid-point in a presidential
term was reached. (See box: "Unseparate and Unequal?")
This provision was invoked in 2004 when
the opposition amassed the required signatures over challenges
by the Chávez government and a recall was held in August.
Despite the U.S. bankrolling some of the opposition groups organizing
the recall through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
and the secretive Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), Chávez
retained his office with 58 percent of the vote (Christian Science
Though the OAS and Carter Center certified
the recall referendum as fair, some opposition groups, like the
anti-Chávez, NED-funded Sumate, charged (and continue to
charge) a fraudulent vote tally. Such charges have been largely
dismissed by an otherwise anti-Chávez U.S. press, but Sumate
has managed to convince Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl of
the righteousness of its cause. More than a year after the failed
referendum (4/10/06), Diehl wrote favorably of "the election-monitoring
group Sumate, which has meticulously documented Chávez's
manipulation of the electoral system."
Sumate is not an "election-monitoring
group," but a prominent political opposition group that spearheaded
the recall. The group's co-founder, María Corina Machado,
was a coup supporter who signed the 2002 Carmona Decree that suspended
Venezuela's democracy. No actual election monitoring group challenged
the referendum's official results (Miami Herald, 7/8/05).
A legislative election in December 2005
ended with a twist when four opposition parties decided to withdraw
their candidates, allowing Chávez allies to win virtually
all the seats. Not that they would have done well had they stayed
in the race. As Venezuela political observer and Chávez
critic Alberto Garrido told the New York Times (12/5/05), "Chávez
would have annihilated them anyway.'' The predictable dominance
of a Chávez-aligned coalition in the legislature was followed
by a column by Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt
(12/26/05) that charged Chávez had "consolidated one-party
Free elections are a necessary condition for democracy, but aren't
sufficient evidence to ensure that a functioning democracy is
in place. Actual democracy depends on how elected institutions
function and on day-to-day citizen involvement in between elections.
During his tenure, Chávez has tried
to implement an agenda he has alternately called "21st century
socialism" and "capitalism with a human face,"
which he says takes into account socialism's past failures. But
rumors of communism in Venezuela are greatly exaggerated. The
private sector has actually grown during his presidency. According
to the Associated Press (7/7/06), Venezuelan central bank statistics
show "the private sector accounted for more of the economy
last year, 62.5 percent of gross domestic product, than when [Chávez]
was elected in 1998, when it stood at 59.3 percent."
This doesn't mean Chávez isn't
a strong believer in the public sector and a government supported
cooperative sector, particularly when it comes to programs for
the poor. He has created a series of programs dubbed "missions"
to fight poverty, malnutrition, disease, illiteracy and other
pressing social problems. In many cases, the administration, budgeting
and other decision-making for these programs have been delegated
to neighborhood councils located in Venezuela's poor neighborhoods.
Even New Republic editor Franklin Foer (Atlantic, 5/06) conceded
the impact of the missions:
Chavista investments in the slums are
obvious. For the first time, blighted neighborhoods have government-subsidized
grocery stores, access to the Internet, and doctors tending to
their children. These improvements have translated into palpable
optimism. Some polls show that Venezuelans are more sanguine about
their economic future than Canadians or Americans.
Charges that Chávez has "militarized"
the Venezuelan government (New York Times, 9/17/06) have their
origins in an early Chávez government program. In 1999,
when a recession left Venezuela short of money to fund poverty
programs, Chávez implemented "Plan Bolívar
2000," under which the underutilized military was ordered
to construct housing, build roads and carry out mass vaccination
drives-hardly what one imagines upon hearing warnings of government
Venezuela's aggressive anti-poverty programs
and "participatory democracy" have energized the poor
and given them a stake in the country's fortunes. By the democratic
measure of citizen involvement, Venezuela is doing rather better
than many democracies. And Venezuelans seem to agree; a 2005 Latinobarometro
poll surveying opinion in 18 Latin American countries found Venezuelans
near the top in their preference for democracy over other forms
of government, and in satisfaction with how their democracy is
functioning. The poll found Venezuelans considered their country
"totally democratic" at a higher percentage than in
any other nation in Latin America.
* The NED has given $2.9 million in "pro-democracy"
grants to Venezuelan groups since 2002; the more secretive OTI,
a branch of USAID whose website says it works to "support
U.S. foreign policy objectives," has spent over $26 million
in Venezuela to "strengthen democratic institutions"
since 2002 (AP, 8/27/06).