Why Chávez-style governance runs against history

The end of Hugo Chávez's rule in Venezuela should help weaken the model of authoritarian populism. His social goals may be worthy but his methods of personal rule were not.

AP Photo
Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro, second from right, links arms with Bolivia's President Evo Morales, left, as they arrive at a military hospital where President Hugo Chavez died in Caracas, Venezuela, March 6.

The end of Hugo Chávez’s rule in Venezuela marks an important milestone in history’s long road toward more democracy. The world now has one less leader who puts personal rule ahead of the rule of law.

Whatever the worth of Mr. Chávez’s ideas – uplifting the poor, breaking an entrenched elite – they were damaged by an authoritarian populism, or a belief that one person can so embody the aspirations of the masses that normal democracy, individual rights, and judicial oversight must bend to his power.

During 14 years in office, Chávez made mistakes similar to those of other self-styled revolutionaries, both on the left and right, such as Argentina’s Juan Perón and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. He rigged the electoral process and used social divisions as a political tactic. He tapped into resentment of the rich and relied on patronage and subsidies to extend his grip. Like Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, he declared “every man a king!” but made sure he alone remained king.

Chávez came to power at the end of a century whose most significant achievement was the spread of democracy and freedom. The second biggest achievement was more social and economic equality. Like many rulers, he rushed for the second goal at the expense of the more-important first.

As a result, Venezuela now has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. Its oil productivity has dropped. Political divisions and corruption are rampant. A new elite now wields the power. While some social indicators are up, they may not be sustainable without the stability that an open and fair democracy brings.

Besides building up a personality cult around himself, Chávez was able to maintain power for so long by tapping the country’s vast oil wealth. In almost all oil-rich countries today, democracy has either never taken root (Saudi Arabia) or is in decline (Vladimir Putin’s Russia). Whenever a government tightly controls a nation’s natural resources, a ruler is often tempted to use them to stay in power.

Democracy’s great strength lies in the checks and balances that prevent anyone from claiming that he or she represents “the people.” An elected majority is forced to accommodate the minority. Personality is played down for the sake of a contest of ideas through a series of votes or vetoes. The main role of “the people” is to be a check on the power of the state.

Venezuelans must now return to a style of governance in which elected leaders do not personalize power or use populist calls for social justice while demonizing – or jailing – those who disagree with them.

Chávez the man was quite charming, generous, and truly empathetic toward the disadvantaged. But on balance, most of the actions of Chávez the leader need to be reversed. History was not on his side.

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