The reality of Venezuela under the rule of Hugo Chávez Frias, Gregory Wilpert tells us, is a “complicated truth” (“Venezuela’s Other Path,” Spring 2005). Whereas many observers see in Chávez another Fidel Castro, an authoritarian caudillo pushing his nation toward a dictatorial regime, Wilpert finds such portraits stereotypical, based more on the propensity of both men to deliver marathon speeches than on actual developments in Venezuela. He accepts that Chávez is a charismatic figure who has encouraged a cult of personality, but believes that Chávez’s initiatives have broken through Venezuela’s “ossified democracy,” bringing into the political process those who had been excluded, awakening an “apathetic citizenry” and “energizing civil society.” There is much in Chávez’s rule to celebrate, according to this view.
Ordinarily, one arrives at “complicated truths” by adding contradictory and complex elements, by introducing nuance to an overly simplistic version of reality. But Wilpert “complicates” things by eliminating from his account precisely those features of Chávez’s rule that have been condemned by human rights organizations, advocates of a free press, organized labor, and other segments of civil society, both in Venezuela and internationally. The two political criticisms he makes of Chávez’s “effort to transform Venezuela”—that it extended the president’s term of office from five to six years and that it gave the president direct control over military promotions—would strike most readers as something they would on balance oppose, but are hardly the foundation blocks of authoritarian rule. Compare the import of those measures to the following set of facts, not one of which appears in Wilpert’s essay.
Colonel Hugo Chávez, a paratrooper in the Venezuelan Army, first came to public attention in 1992, as the main leader of a failed coup d’état. He and his co-conspirators were tried on charges of treason and imprisoned, but he won a pardon and an early release two years later. Despite initial misgivings about the electoral process Chávez entered the 1998 presidential elections, and won with the support of significant elements of the Venezuelan left and trade union movement. Once in office, his method of governing was that of a military commander, issuing orders and exhortations to the ranks and brooking no dissent. The Chávez record is rife with violations of human rights, disregard for the rule of law, and contempt for democratic norms and processes.
Headstrong and imperious, inexperienced and inept at democratic politics, Chávez soon alienated many of his onetime allies and precipitated needless confrontations with his foes. Conflicts between his supporters and opponents escalated, and growing demonstrations against his regime were violently attacked. In 2003, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), affiliated with the Organization o...
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