Sunday, December 09, 2007

'Dictator' loses election... critics mystified

I'm on record (several times) as no fan whatsoever of Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez. I believe he is an egomaniac so obsessed with his international reputation that he's willing to cozy up to reactionary theocrats.

However, it seems only fair that I should acknowledge recent events in the country.

Chavez put forth a referendum on proposed changes to the country's constitution, which included ending limits on presidential terms, halting the central bank's autonomy and cutting the working week.

(Renegade Eye blog has a more thorough look at all the changes)

Chavez's changes were narrowly defeated: 51-49 percent.

But wait? How is that possible? Dictators never lose elections.

The Venezuelan leader has been called many things by critics. He's been called a dictator. He's been called anti-democratic. He's been called a loudmouthed populist demagogue. He's been called a strong man. He's been called the head of a personality cult. The last three by myself. I won't re-write history and deny what I said.

But fair is fair. Chavez did not rig this election. He did not initiate mass arrests of opponents of the changes. He did not shut down newspapers hostile to the changes. He did not order his army to fire on protesters, in stark contrast to the truly dictatorial and murderous regime in Burma or the US-backed regime in Ethiopia.

The campaign on both sides was vibrant and often virulent, but that's quite the opposite of what one might expect in a state supposedly as repressed as Venezuela. Autocratic states are comatose with fear.

Chavez was bitter about defeat, but he said he'd accept the result. He later added that he would step down in 2013 when his current term ended.

He may not like democracy, ex-paratrooper that he is, but the fact of the matter is that this is an example of him respecting democracy. He's made 'people power' the center of his agenda. The fact that he respected 'people power' even when it went against what he wanted is a reality that his sometimes fair-minded and often not critics must acknowledge.

The other thing critics must acknowledge is that the constitution he implemented allows for a recall vote in the middle of his term. Something opponents tried and failed in 2004 (shortly after the US-backed coup attempt against him in 2002). While I'm not sure if this is a great idea, one certainly can't accuse this of being the anti-democratic machinations of a power hungry megalomaniac.

Chavez may be a loudmouthed populist demagogue, in much the same way as Rudy Giuliani. He may invoke anti-imperialist screeds in a vainglorious attempt to become the new Developing World Idol. But at the end of the day, his tirades really aren't the central issue to anyone other than the chattering classes (like the blogosphere) and those in the media that need good copy. At the end of the day, he should be judged first and foremost on whether he's improving the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.

And at the end of the day, the only judgement on Chavez that matters will be cast not by bloggers, western intellectuals or American editorial writers but by Venezuelans themselves.

Update: Despite his friendliess with Chavez, Bolivian president Evo Morales is what a progressive leader should be. He is worried improving the lives of his people, not becoming a rock star of the leftist world. Frustrated with opposition to his reforms, Morales has called for a referendum on whether he and nine regional governors should remain in office. Here's a guy who's willing to risk his presidency that comes with it to advance what he believes would improve the country. This is a leader who's willing to do what's right even if it means he might lose power. You have to admire that.


Mark said...

However, two days after the defeat he made sure to go on TV, berate and belittle the opposite, and promise to enact these "reforms" through another manner, probably the legislature. Let's see what happens.

Brian said...

I'm not concerned about his rhetoric, which I find tedious. But if he respects the constitutional rule of law, then can outsiders really have any complaints?

Mark said...

Hmm, how close was Chavez to overturning the results?