A Democratic Dictator? Unhelpful Caricatures and Venezuelan Democracy

How many legitimate elections must Hugo Chávez win before the international media accepts him as a democratic leader? The day after Venezuela went to the polls in what have subsequently been accepted as free and fairly fought elections, the Guardian published a survey asking the question ‘Do you approve of Hugo Chávez?’i with two possible answers:

1) ¡Viva la revolución chavista!
2) No, Chávez es un dictador

The implication of this question is that Chávez is a dictator whether you support him or not, a suggestion that is intellectually limited. Such reductionism is both inaccurate and unhelpful in analyzing Venezuela’s democratic process. Unfortunately, this cartoonist representation is by no means an exception in the international media’s coverage of Venezuelan politics.

Despite being meant at least partly in jest, the Guardian’s survey is reflective of the superficial nature of the general debate on Venezuela. Rarely is it acknowledged that there might in fact be myriad reasons for choosing to vote for or against Chávez. The extremely loyal and almost universal support for Chávez among Venezuela’s poor is commonly dismissed as a result of the bias of state media or the appeal of a populist leader. This patronizing intimation crucially ignores the significant social advances made by Venezuela’s poor under Chávez’s leadership.

This is not to suggest that legitimate criticism should not be leveled at aspects of Chávez’s leadership. In particular, the constitutional amendment of 1999 that abolished term limits set a dangerous precedent despite being decided by referendum. The same concern that surrounded President Uribe’s attempt to pursue such a course in Colombia should no doubt apply to Chávez as well. In a region historically plagued by political instability, and still in the very early stages of democratic consolidation, term limits provide a crucial check on the power of leaders. In addition, political polarization and corruption within Venezuela remain serious issues, and Chávez’s international grandstanding and buffoonery, as well as his alignment with the repressive Ahmadinejad regime in Iran is dubious at best.

Having said this, it is rarely acknowledged that Chávez possesses one of the firmest mandates in the region, having consistently achieved an overall majority in both presidential elections as well as referenda on the legitimacy of his right to rule. Elections in Venezuela during Chávez’s tenure have been invariably declared as free and fair by international observers from both the OAS and the EU. Moreover, two of the most blatantly undemocratic events during his tenure thus far were perpetrated by the opposition: firstly, the failed coup attempt in 2002 and secondly, the absurd decision to boycott the National Assembly Elections in 2005. This is the same opposition that has consistently questioned Chávez’s democratic credentials.

Sunday’s elections in Venezuela were first and foremost a victory for democracy, as the voting process was once again declared free and fair, with both sides peacefully accepting the results. Given that many viewed the elections as a plebiscite on Hugo Chávez’s leadership, the results also once again highlight the incumbent president’s continued popularity. However, the international press reacted in the usual manner, hailing the gains of the opposition and describing the results as a ‘major blow’ii to Chávez. The fact that the president’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) retained a majority in the National Assembly in spite of the country’s recent recession suggests that this reaction is a gross exaggeration.

The media loves nothing more than a villain, especially, in the media’s current configuration, a left wing, populist villain. At present in Latin America, Hugo Chávez (who admittedly appears to relish the role) seems to be the current occupant of that position. He is outspoken, passionate and the latest in a line of populist leaders famed for their anti-U.S. diatribes. However, for a more sophisticated analysis of politics in Venezuela, it is the duty of the international media to resist the misleading characterization of Chávez the dictator. Hopefully last Sunday’s successful National Assembly Elections will aid this process, but we should not hold our breath.

References for this article available here.