February 2 marks the start of President Hugo Chavez’s 13th year in power. Venezuela’s populist authoritarian took office back in 1999. That day was a somber day for the Americas and friends of democracy around the world.
In a recent discussion with American diplomats to the Andean region, someone asked our senior representative in Caracas John Caulfield if Venezuela is still a democracy. A silence descended over the audience as it awaited a response. Like all diplomats, he shied away from an ugly truth that would surely create friction and backbiting from Chavez. Cautiously, Caulfield offered that Chavez still holds elections and enjoys continued although diminishing popular support. As for U.S. relations with Venezuela, he said they are currently at a “standstill.”
Standing still is not something Chavez does well. After a dozen years in power, Chavez wants even more. Recent enabling laws and other measures allow Chavez to govern by decree without legislative or legal checks. By virtually any objective measure, democracy is dead in Venezuela.
The U.S. continues to grapple with an antagonistic leader of a nation that was once considered a major U.S. friend, commercial partner, and democratic ally. Once seen as the hope for overhauling a dysfunctional democracy, Chavez in the past 12 years has turned Venezuela into a bastion for anti-Americanism and non-democratic socialism and advanced political and institutional destabilization throughout the Americas.
Over the years Chavez has earned a string of dubious labels or comparisons—a “tropical Mussolini,” Peron with Petroleum (a reference to Argentina’s infamous authoritarian populist of the mid-20th century), the “narcissist-Leninist”—and has been likened to Fidel Castro and Muammar al-Gaddafi. Foreign Policy placed Chavez among “the worst of the worst.”
Mexican historian and intellectual Enrique Krauze in 2009 portrayed Chavez as the Shah of Venezuela. He “does not act like the president of Venezuela; he acts like its owner. He is the proprietor of his public office, the CEO of state enterprises that answer to no laws of transparency and accountability, the big and indiscriminate spender of oil revenues (between 1999 and 2008 he spent, on average, $122 million per day). … But above all Chávez is the commander-in-chief of a media campaign that, in his mind, is the equivalent of a great and interminable military battle. Those who are not with him are ‘against Venezuela,’ are ‘imperialists,’ pitiyanquis (little Yankees), ‘filth.’”
What lies ahead? Christopher Sabatini states starkly: “Venezuela has become deeply politicized, its institutions and laws have been gutted, and its economy has turned into a welter of corruption and inefficiencies. This is not a socialist revolution so much as an anti-institutional revolution that could leave behind a lawless black hole large enough to threaten the entire region.”
When it comes to Chavez, the Obama Administration attempts to maintain a low profile and reduce bilateral frictions, especially since it has failed to generate a consistent strategy for confronting Chavez’s brand of pseudo-democracy. One can hope that with the help of new leadership in Congress, the U.S. can re-focus on the disintegration of democracy in Venezuela over the last dozen years and find new ways to help Venezuela restore a friendly, representative and effective democracy through free and fair elections in 2012. A baker’s dozen of years of Chavista misrule should be sufficient for Venezuela and the Americas.