The Repeatedly Re-Elected Autocrat

Painting Chávez as a 'would-be dictator'

by Steve Rendall

FAIR,, December 2006


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.

Calling names
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.

Certified elections
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 Monitor, 2/6/06).*

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 rule."

Participatory democracy
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 militarization.

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).

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