No Mas Democracia

The arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez exposes Venezuela’s Potemkin democracy and Hugo Chavez’s poisonous legacy.

Cristian Hernandez/AFP/Getty

A few days after Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez expired, his body saturated with cancer he believed was implanted in him by the CIA, I sat on an MSNBC panel encircled by academics sympathetic to the dead autocrat. Vastly outnumbered by halfwits and fellow travellers, I reached for the most conciliatory point available. “Chavez was no democrat," I muttered, after viewing clips of various silly pundits denouncing him as a dictator, "but words mean things." An authoritarian, yes, but he didn't quite rise to the definitional standard of dictator. “You can go to Venezuela, you can be in the opposition, you can read [opposition newspaper] El Nacional...” And on and on I droned.

It was a tedious point, and one that, in pursuit of a narrow semantic argument, elided all the undemocratic developments in Venezuela since Chavez began his campaign of political and social polarization, his destruction of the country’s economy and already tattered democratic institutions. But compared to my fellow guests, I was something of a counterrevolutionary, a wrecker, an ideological deviationist serving the interests of the bourgeoise. Or the CIA. Or USAID. A particularly radical panelist, one of those sad little political pilgrims always sniffing out the next Third World utopia, had argued in the days after Chavez's death that "the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough."

My academic co-panelist, so disappointed in Chavez’s apparently mild form of Castroism, can rejoice in the disastrous but sufficiently authoritarian rule of his chosen successor, the former bus driver and Chavez confidante Nicolás Maduro. But the Cuban-trained Maduro, who has variously claimed to have seen Chavez’s ghost in bird form and reported that his mentor’s apparition was spotted loitering in the Caracas subway system, rendered the autocrat-versus-dictator debate moot this week when he ordered the arrest of the handsome, telegenic, and Harvard-trained opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. It was Lopez and his allies who helped organize a series of protest marches in the past week, during which three people were brutally gunned down--and the weight of evidence, much of it marshalled by the usually pro-government newspaper Últimas Noticias, suggests that all three were killed by Maduro’s goon squads.

So naturally, the government ordered the arrest of...Lopez.

And yesterday, at the start of a large—and illegal—opposition march (the government had a counter demonstration, which oddly wasn’t declared illegal), Lopez gave a short speech and turned himself over to the National Guard. It was an astoundingly brave bit of defiance; after all, is there a place on Earth worse than the inside of a Venezuelan prison? And a lesser man, like myself, would have sprinted to the airport and hopped the next flight to Miami. But there was Lopez, after having tenderly kissed and bid farewell to his wife, being wrenched into a waiting police van, a Venezuelan flag in one hand and a clutch of white flowers in the other. A picture that perfectly illustrated the death blow to Venezuelan democracy. Lopez would soon arrive at a military prison to await charges of incitement (!), homicide (!!), and terrorism (!!!).

If you doubted that Maduro was presiding over a rotting Potemkin democracy—kangaroo courts packed with loyalists, a neutered media, violent street gangs beholden to the government—witness his Mussolini-on-the-piazza performance yesterday, when he announced Lopez’s arrest in front of a crowd of regime loyalists. Maduro told the assembled that President of the National Assembly (and the one of the country’s most powerful and recognizable chavistas) Diosdado Cabello had personally driven Lopez to jail, in a bizarre, professional wrestling-type victory lap for the regime: “At this moment, Diosdado Cabello is driving his car and taking Leopoldo López to a jail outside Caracas," Maduro announced, assuring his supporters of "the surrender of the political chief of the Venezuelan fascist right wing, already in the hands of justice.”

Maduro, in the lunatic tradition of his lunatic predecessor, conjured a sinister plot: “We have been informed that the ultra-right wing of Venezuela, in tandem with the ultra-right wing of Miami, apropos the bench warrant, activated foreign groups to find and kill [Lopez] so as to fuel a political crisis and lead us to civil war." It’s not so generous to defame and arrest a political opponent, but look how generous they were in saving his life from his fellow fascists!

Indeed, outside of the official newspaper of the 1932 German Communist Party, is there any other organized political movement in history that is so profligate in its use if the word fascist? And if we are to allow elastic political definitions when discussing Venezuela—the moderate opposition are National Socialists, for instance—I am going to slacken my rules governing the use of the word dictator: Chavez might not have qualified, but Nicolas Maduro sure as hell does.