On taking special powers this week to rule by decree, President Chávez of Venezuela declared: “We’re building a new democracy here that can’t be turned back.” By describing these political changes as irreversible, he revealed the type of democracy that he had in mind: one person, one vote, where he is the person and his is the vote.
A generation ago, Latin America was beset by economic stagnation, debt, inequality and autocracy. Then countries such as Chile and Uruguay threw off military rule and become stable, well-governed pluralist democracies. Ruling parties of the constitutional Left, such as the Workers’ Party of Brazil, controlled inflation and adhered to responsible public finance. These developments enhanced living standards and expanded liberty. The big exceptions to these trends are Cuba and Venezuela; and under Mr Chávez’s erratic and authoritarian rule, Venezuela is the only country in the region whose political and economic development is being aggressively retarded.
Mr Chávez was elected President in 1998. His rule has been characterised by continually arrogating powers to the presidency, curbing the independence of the judiciary, bypassing parliamentary government and undermining the political rights of his opponents. He describes the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal as a freedom fighter, and praises President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President Ahmadinejad of Iran as “brothers”. And he stands in a dispiritingly long line of autocrats who are celebrated by the Western Left.
These hopes generally reflect more the weakness of radical politics in the advanced industrial democracies than any particular interest in foreign affairs. When Mr Chávez visited London in 2006, he was a guest of honour at a lunch given by Ken Livingstone, then the Mayor of London, who described him as “a beacon of democracy and social progress in Latin America”.
Quite forgotten by Mr Livingstone, or perhaps not known about, was Mr Chávez’s attempted military coup in 1992. Had it succeeded it would have ended 34 precious years of democratic government in Venezuela. The narrative of know-nothing radicalism depicts Mr Chávez as a rebel against harsh austerity imposed by the IMF in the 1990s. In reality, his populist demagoguery shattered a fragile political consensus for economic reform, by showing the power of violence and the politics of the street. Almost a hundred people died in his failed coup attempt, most of them civilians.
In his early years of office, Mr Chávez faced huge discontent, including another attempted coup and a wave of general strikes. But his rule has since been entrenched by two factors.
First, the strength of energy prices for most of the past decade has swelled Venezuela’s public finances, of which around 50 per cent derive from oil revenues. Yet even this entirely fortuitous boost to the economy has been squandered. Poor economic management has given Venezuela an inflation rate of 30 per cent.
Second, Mr Chávez has intimidated his opponents and progressively stripped Venezuela’s political system of checks and balances. This is the context for the new powers that he has assumed. On the pretext of responding to floods, he has, as one opposition politician put it, mounted a coup d’état against the Constitution. Mr Chávez conforms to a familiar model of Latin American military strongmen whose time ought to be long past.