TCS Daily

Why Chavez's Days May Be Numbered

By José Enrique Idler - March 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, makes it seem like populist dictatorship is back in fashion in Latin America. He has given the country a makeover, changing everything from its official ideology and name to, most recently, the flag and the coat-of-arms. Assisted by oil revenues, he envisions extending his makeover philosophy to the whole region, reinforcing the worry that Latin America's lurch to the left represents a new era with setbacks for free-markets and democracy. Chavez, however, is a lonely voice, though not in a desert; rather in a region that wants to boom and that has changed far too much to make the Chavez-style of governance sustainable.

Fidel Castro, a quintessential master of populist dictatorship, has managed to stay in power for over 40 years. Castro's totalitarian tenure is remarkable, since it defies the tendency to move towards open societies after the fall of the Communist hegemon. Even more remarkable is the fact that Cuba is part of a continent that has headed speedily towards democracy (in contrast with regions where making room for freedom has been more challenging, like the Middle East).

But now consider that Chavez and other aspiring leaders with totalitarian inclinations have come to power in a different world. Castro managed to close the gates before the trend towards openness was in full speed. By keeping them shut, he has insulated Cuba for generations, making the island look like the fossil of a bygone era. Chavez has had widespread popular support; and in the eyes of low-income Venezuelans still seems to be a better alternative to the old regime. Two things, however, are now different in Latin America.

The world is more interconnected, and Latin America is no exception. Globalization has become the norm and governments increasingly play by the rules of investment and economic exchange. Brazil's president, Lula, recently cited economic stability as one of his triumphs, declaring that the future "will be built on strong investment in education and training, with tax relief to encourage new investment, notably in science and technology." Additionally, Peru and Colombia have now struck free-trade agreements with the U.S -- and Ecuador and Panama may be next.

Forty years ago a revolution could succeed by persuading villages that the solution would come by overthrowing oppressive landowners and capitalists. Despite the rhetoric of anti-neo-liberalism, the success of a revolution in Latin America would now be measured by economic growth and the number of new malls. People crave wealth and goods, although as recently pointed out by Vladimir Chelminski from CEDICE, a Venezuelan think-tank, free markets need to be more widely embraced and better understood. At any rate, name-brand stores, the Internet and video games have become as autochthonous as birds and palm-trees.

Chavez certainly understands interconnectedness and has inserted himself into the global narrative of anti-imperialism and oppression -- finding common cause with Iran and North Korea. Anti-imperialism has always been a global phenomenon, and now even more so. The new totalitarian manual has chapters on how to sponsor international conferences such as the World Social Forum, how to sabotage any prospects for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and how to become an international actor by poking at the U.S. But that's not where the regional economic and political currents have been heading.

The second way in which Latin America is different is that there's now a democratic consensus. Gone are the days in which coups and dictators were seen as a tolerable evil. In fact, the new consensus is clearly stated in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States. Articles three and four of the Charter speak of "fundamental freedoms," "the pluralistic system of political parties," "separation of powers," and "freedom of the press." A coup would even have a hard time succeeding nowadays -- as shown by the lack of regional support for the failed coup against Chavez in 2002. And the OAS's Charter certainly condemns alterations of the "constitutional regime."

Although Chavez could well win the presidential elections this year and remain in power -- he has an impressive electoral track-record -- his political inclinations run counter to the region's democratic instincts. Consider that left-leaning governments in Chile and Brazil tend to show concern for economic and political freedoms. Beyond left or right, the consensus is now openness and democracy; and here Chavez finds himself on the wrong side of the fence. Unless he changes his ways, an unlikely prospect, his days are numbered. As oil prices decline, so will the dictator's clout.

Jose Enrique Idler is a National Research Initiative fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.


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