As the 20th century drew to a close, Latin America finally seemed to have escaped its reputation for military dictatorships. The democratic wave that swept the region starting in the late 1970s appeared unstoppable. No Latin American country except Haiti had reverted to authoritarianism. There were a few coups, of course, but they all unraveled, and constitutional order returned. Polls in the region indicated growing support for democracy, and the climate seemed to have become inhospitable for dictators.
Then came Hugo Chávez, elected president of Venezuela in December 1998. The lieutenant colonel had attempted a coup six years earlier. When that failed, he won power at the ballot box and is now approaching a decade in office. In that time, he has concentrated power, harassed opponents, punished reporters, persecuted civic organizations, and increased state control of the economy. Yet, he has also found a way to make authoritarianism fashionable again, if not with the masses, with at least enough voters to win elections. And with his fiery anti-American, anti-neoliberal rhetoric, Chávez has become the poster boy for many leftists worldwide.
Many experts, and certainly Chávez's supporters, would not concede that Venezuela has become an autocracy. After all, Chávez wins votes, often with the help of the poor. That is the peculiarity of Chávez's regime. He has virtually eliminated the contradiction between autocracy and political competitiveness.
What's more, his accomplishment is not simply a product of charisma or unique local circumstances. Chávez has refashioned authoritarianism for a democratic age. With elections this year in several Latin American states -- including Mexico and Brazil -- his leadership formula may inspire like-minded leaders in the region. And his international celebrity status means that even strongmen outside of Latin America may soon try to adopt the new Chávez look.
The Democratic Disguise
There are no mass executions or concentration camps in Venezuela. Civil society has not disappeared, as it did in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. There is no systematic, state-sponsored terror leaving scores of desaparecidos, as happened in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s. And there is certainly no efficiently repressive and meddlesome bureaucracy à la the Warsaw Pact. In fact, in Venezuela, one can still find an active and vociferous opposition, elections, a feisty press, and a vibrant and organized civil society. Venezuela, in other words, appears almost democratic.
But when it comes to accountability and limits on presidential power, the picture grows dark. Chávez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power. In 1999, he engineered a new constitution that did away with the Senate, thereby reducing from two to one the number of chambers with which he must negotiate. Because Chávez only has a limited majority in this unicameral legislature, he revised the rules of congress so that major legislation can pass with only a simple, rather than a two-thirds, majority. Using that rule, Chávez secured congressional approval for an expansion of the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 justices and filled the new posts with unabashed revolucionarios, as Chavistas call themselves.
Chávez has also become commander in chief twice over. With the traditional army, he has achieved unrivaled political control. His 1999 constitution did away with congressional oversight of military affairs, a change that allowed him to purge disloyal generals and promote friendly ones. But commanding one armed force was not enough for Chávez. So in 2004, he began assembling a parallel army of urban reservists, whose membership he hopes to expand from 100,000 members to 2 million. In Colombia, 10,000 right-wing paramilitary forces significantly influenced the course of the domestic war against guerrillas. Two million reservists may mean never having to be in the opposition.
As important, Chávez commands the institute that supervises elections, the National Electoral Council, and the gigantic state-owned oil company, PDVSA, which provides most of the government's revenues. A Chávez-controlled election body ensures that voting irregularities committed by the state are overlooked. A Chávez-controlled oil industry allows the state to spend at will, which comes in handy during election season.
Chávez thus controls the legislature, the Supreme Court, two armed forces, the only important source of state revenue, and the institution that monitors electoral rules. As if that weren't enough, a new media law allows the state to supervise media content, and a revised criminal code permits the state to imprison any citizen for showing "disrespect" toward government officials. By compiling and posting on the Internet lists of voters and their political tendencies -- including whether they signed a petition for a recall referendum in 2004 -- Venezuela has achieved reverse accountability. The state is watching and punishing citizens for political actions it disapproves of rather than the other way around. If democracy requires checks on the power of incumbents, Venezuela doesn't come close.