Venezuela: The Modern Face of Dictatorship

Classic Autocracies May Be on the Way Out, but a New Formula Has Emerged

EspañolThe return of traditional dictators like Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Somoza, and several other autocrats — that trampled on liberty and democracy for decades — seems unlikely. For military governments — juntas like the one led by Rafael Videla in Argentina — to take power once again also seems improbable.

Those characters belong to an era in world geopolitics marked by the Cold War and Latin America’s lag in development, whose dominant features were the deep inequalities between the country and the city, the unrestrained power of the state over society, and the absence of intermediate institutions to enable a refined and fertile base for regional progress. These dictators — tolerated by the United States and the former Soviet Union — were part of a Latin America in which military forces could take power and exercise it, repudiate international considerations, and have no fear of any sanctions or repercussions applied by other countries.

The decline of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War suggested the unsustainable nature of military dictatorships and classic autocracies in the modern era. Further, the approval of the statutes of the International Criminal Court in 2000, the Rome Statute — which codified crimes against humanity and genocide, among others, and declares them indefensible — has discouraged far-right military gorilas and power-hungry leftists from promoting coups to stay in power.

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Last November, Maduro accused the media of promoting a coup, similar to the one in 2002. Source: Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Información y la Comunicación.

The Latin-American Left and the Venezuelan Regime

An important sector of Latin America’s collectivist left insists then that in Venezuela there is a solid and exemplary democracy. This is the same group, however, that considers Fidel and Raúl Castro to be two accomplished democrats, while they condemn Augusto Pinochet for being a cruel tyrant. For that antiquated coalition, the strategy of putting on the mask of Marxism and talking in the plight of the exploited and oppressed turns into a cover that allows rulers to run over human rights, destroy the rule of law, persecute the opposition, militarize the society, and take over the media — with seemingly no fear of being categorized as despots.

For that same group, there are dictators from the right and never from the left, even though these presidents are either active in the military or have simply retired from it. For example, General Juan F. Velasco Alvarado — who applied a strongman regime of control and domination in Peru, between 1968 and 1975 — held the reputation of a progressive military ruler who governed in favor of the oppressed, in spite of sinking the nation into a deep economic and social crisis. For that left, there are different rules applied to the same authoritarian regimes. Left-wing regimes are good, right-wing ones are bad.

The current regime in Venezuela is supposedly democratic because: (1) it originates from popular and universal elections; (2) there’s freedom of speech and information; (3) there are the typical powers of a republic, and (4) there’s the right to free association that allows an operating system of multiple parties, unions, and other independent civil associations.

From the formal point of view, the governments of Chávez and Maduro have covered the basic requirements that have allowed them to portray themselves as democratic in front of the international community. However, when we examine thoroughly the functioning of the model, it shows a wide gap between the form and the content. Through a deeper examination, the system built as a Cuban-Venezuelan tandem constitutes a dictatorship with a new face.

The Features of the Venezuelan Neo-Dictatorship

Elections as a Legitimizing Mechanism

In Venezuela, there have been numerous electoral shows since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. All of them have developed in an environment filled with abusive use of public resources to favor the government’s side. The regime, therefore, makes the opposite candidates and their views invisible. It denies them any space in state-owned media and allows its own candidates to use government bodies and the state to promote its programmed positions. The financial resources that belong to every Venezuelan are also invested shamelessly to transport supporters, carry out big rallies, and pay for governmental publicity. Yet in practice, the elections remain an instrument to legitimize the authoritarian regime.

Handcuffed Freedom of Expression

The right to information and freedom of expression haven’t been fully suppressed, but they have certainly been encroached. Independently printed or radio and cable media are harassed through restraining measures and red tape that impede access to advertisers. They are, therefore, strangled through less-visible, financial ways. All the while, the state-owned media builds its strength.

All State Authority in to the Executive

In Venezuela, the independent branches of government and the balance of powers have disappeared. The entire state structure is subordinated to the will of the president. There’s no court or independent entity to which an individual can go to, or organization to settle an issue of political nature. This subordination will increase with the Enabling Law, that the National Assembly approved for Nicolás Maduro in early November.

Growing Militarization of the State and Society

The military have been acquiring a growing presence in every public sphere. In the economy, the media, culture, and public entities, the military — whether they are active or retired — have ever more discretionary power, while the spheres of civil society are decreasing at an accelerated rate.

Too-Governmental Organizations

Independent civil groups, such as political parties and unions, along with professional, business, and student associations are under siege from the government. State officials, seeing them as a threat to their monopoly on power, seek to substitute them for organizations aligned with their official interests.

These are some of the most significant aspects of the neo-dictatorship installed in Venezuela since 1999. We will return to this topic in future columns.

Translated by Marcela Estrada.

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