This is a short verdict on the regime of Hugo Chávez. I hope to put up a longer, more detailed one soon.
As Hugo Chávez apparently nears closer to death, we can see from Western news coverage that this is a man who more than any other present-day Latin American politician has captivated the USA and Europe. In polarised Venezuela Chávez is either a saint or a devil; a genius or a fool. The polarisation of opinion means that supporters and opponents of Chavismo end up with different concepts of democracy and freedom themselves. In the West as well there is no room for compromise as his backers or attackers trot out well-worn phrases about democracy, socialism and the economy, appearing to show little understanding of Venezuelan politics or history.
The real Venezuela is far more nuanced than many Western commentators acknowledge. Venezuela has been a democracy since 1958, but between then and 1999 it was in many respects a flawed democracy. The two main parties, Acción Democrática and COPEI, held power exclusively and state benefits went along party-controlled lines. The urban poor were left unrepresented. Chávez, who was involved in a failed military coup in the early 90’s, came into power on a wave of an anti-politics and anti-market mood.
His politics are socialism fused with militarism and his electoral base is the poor, who he has engaged in the political system far more than previous regimes through increased electoral registration and what is called participatory democracy, where ordinary citizens sit in committees to claim land and decide how funding should be spent. Many of his education, housing and health policies have improved the lives of this previously neglected underclass. The statistics speak for themselves: in one ‘misión’, the State helped almost 1.5 million citizens learn to read; infant mortality almost halved from 1990 to 2007; and free medical coverage has reached 95%. However before lauding Chávez too much it should be remembered that the government has benefitted from a massive oil boom, and during his regime Venezuela has suffered from high inflation and at times low or negative growth.
Those on the Right dislike Chávez because he is opposed to free markets and US neoliberalism. Yet Chávez should face criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for another reason: because of his approach to democracy. It is a fallacy to say Chávez is a dictator, because he has consistently won elections and referenda, and many of his policies have enjoyed widespread support. As mentioned above, he has also engaged segments of society that had previously been ignored. However, since 1999, he has removed almost all the checks and balances a liberal democracy requires to make sure its elected leaders are kept accountable. He replaced the two tier system of parliament with one National Assembly. His supporters in government have on several occasions given him power by decree for extended periods of time. Chávistas have purged the courts, leading a 2011 Human Rights Watch report to claim “the court has largely abdicated its role as a check on executive power”.
So for the liberal-left, whether or not to support Chávez poses a dilemma. Although in general I think free markets (with some restrictions) are good, I find myself fairly supportive of Chávez’s socioeconomic policies, which have dramatically improved the lives of the Venezuela poor. The government’s social measures were extremely welcome given the level of poverty in the country.
However, as a democrat, it is impossible to support someone so evidently anti-democratic: Hugo Chávez has not been a good president for those who believe in the values of liberal democracy. It is not about whether Chávez himself has a popular mandate to govern – he does. Some will say that niggling worries about the system of governance are irrelevant when you look at the immediate benefits of what Chávez has done in power. However, such a position provides justification for authoritarianism all over the world. Respect of liberal principles is not just an optional beneficial extra that can be forgotten if you like the guy in charge: the principles are based on the realisation that there must always be some restraint on the tyranny of the majority and the power of leaders. The Chávez regime has been fairly repressive towards those who disagree with it (have a look at the aforementioned Human Rights Watch report). Even if it hadn’t been, its contempt for democracy is unforgivable anyway, as it weakens Venezuela’s political system and makes liberty, human rights and democracy all the more precarious in this often turbulent country.
*correction 09/01/2013: Chávismo changed to Chavismo*