Revolution: Is Chavez Going Down?

As one Middle Eastern dictator after another comes under threat, Mac Margolis asks whether Latin American despots will soon meet the same fate.

If there’s a garden variety message in the political turmoil shaking Egypt, Tunisia, and a half dozen other Middle Eastern autocracies, it is that repression has an expiration date. But apparently the word hasn’t reached the Western Hemisphere.

Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, all run by authoritarian populists, appear remarkably untouched by the street protests that are rewriting the politics of the Arab world. And now we know that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez plans to stay in power for the rest of the decade. “The battle has begun” for the 2012 elections, Chavez announced last week in a nationwide broadcast on the 12th anniversary of his Bolivarian Revolution. If he has his way, as Chavez has until now, South America’s ranking caudillo will remain in office until 2019.

But such confidence might seem premature. There are striking parallels between the Middle Eastern despots and the self-styled heir of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, who has ruled virtually unchallenged since 1999. Like Egypt’s House of Sharm El Sheik and the Ben Ali dynasty, Chavez’s "boligarchy" has purloined the wealth it hasn’t squandered. An oil powerhouse, that claims more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela produced close to 2.8 million barrels of crude per day in 2000. Now it produces around 2.4 million.

Today Venezuelans face chronic shortages of basic goods, forcing the country to import 85 percent of everything it eats. Prices are rising at 27 percent a year, the worst inflation in the emerging markets. And while the rest of Latin America is booming, Venezuela posted its second consecutive year of recession. Foreign Policy, in 2008, ranked Caracas as “the murder capital of the world,” though no one knows for sure because the government no longer publishes crime statistics.

That sort of mayhem would be enough to topple any leader. So how does the “Comandante Presidente," as devotees call him, keep from falling? The Egypt effect, ironically, is part of the answer. With Cairo in disarray, and fears looming over political turmoil shutting down the Suez Canal, oil prices are surging again. All the better for Venezuela, which even in decline is still one of the U.S.’ top suppliers. It also helps to have a political firewall, as Chavez does in his ring of Cuban advisers, a Praetorian guard of Havana’s best with half a century of practice in crowd control.

But perhaps Chavez’s competitive advantage is his brand of authoritarianism. A newcomer to Venezuela expecting to see jackboots would be forgiven for wondering. How can a nation so boisterous and fearlessly irreverent be dismissed as a dictatorship? There are tyrants and there are tyrants, of course. And while the scholars’ game of parsing autocracies may be lost on protesters caught on the wrong end of the nightstick, it’s precisely the nuances that can topple or prop up a dictator when things get ugly.

Unlike the theocracies and unalloyed tyrannies of the Middle East and Northern Africa, Venezuela under Chávez is an odd but effective political hybrid, a semi-democracy that keeps its grip on society through a combination of fear, favor, and a modicum of liberty. In this way, Chavez marshals his political majority to suppress not crush rivals, games elections rather than steals them outright, and instead of steamrolling the courts, stacks them instead to insure friendly rulings.

In practice, the semi-democratic ruler may be as unyielding and arbitrary as the baldest tyrant. But its talent is to create the political escape valves—the right to vent steam or vote one’s conscience—to engage voters and rivals even as it frustrates and finally thwarts them. And so Chávez jails and hounds critics, but keeps no gulag of political prisoners. Independent media are silenced (Radio Caracas) or harassed (Globovision), although ordinary Venezuelans may freely assemble and say just about what they want. The government does rig elections, but slants the outcome through gerrymandering as it did in September when the opposition won a majority of the popular vote but failed to gain control of the legislature. Not surprisingly, Chavez and his allies have won 14 of the 15 elections and referendums he has sponsored since coming to power.

By throwing in a dollop of asistencialismo fueled by petrodollars (selling gasoline at a few cents a liter) and putting on a bit of populist theater (expropriating a few mansions in the name of tens of thousands left homeless by rainstorms), the government has managed to prolong its public honeymoon even as the economy sinks. (He still boasts a 50 percent approval rate.) “Venezuela is an authoritarian but at the same time very chaotic [state] that is not tightly repressive,” says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Many Venezuelans, especially the poor, continue to identify with him, even though disenchantment has grown.”

Venezuela’s easygoing political culture may even play a part in keeping Chavez on top. Laid back and imbued with a healthy sense of self deprecation, Venezuelans occasionally take to the streets to protest. But they would sooner laugh at the excesses of their eccentric Comandante than storm the ramparts or immolate themselves in the name of democracy. So far the only arena for “fundamentalistas” in Venezuela is the baseball stadium.

Gustavo Coronel, a Venezuelan energy expert and former founding member of the national oil company, PDVSA, has an anthropological explanation. “Most Venezuelans are descendants of the Arawaks not the Caribs,” says Coronel. “The Arawaks ate mostly maize and plantains. The Caribs ate Arawaks.”

Unlike the theocracies and unalloyed tyrannies of the Middle East and Northern Africa, Venezuela under Chávez is an odd but effective political hybrid

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For now, Chávez is not on the menu. But if the rumblings in the Middle East hold any certainty, it is that the people’s palate also changes.

A longtime correspondent for Newsweek, Mac Margolis has traveled extensively in Brazil and Latin America. He has contributed to The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.