It is difficult for casual outside observers to make sense of Venezuela. Most people who rely on mainstream media for their information will get contradictory accounts of the government of Hugo Chavez, its policies, and its confrontations with the opposition. On the one hand, publications such as the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post regularly publish strong criticism of the Chavez government. On the other hand, publications such as the New York Times or the Guardian present a more benign view. Of course, when one turns toward alternative sources of information, such as Web sites devoted to Venezuela, the image is even more dichotomized. The same goes, generally speaking, for academic publications on Venezuela.
One reason for these polarized accounts is that Chavez lends himself to stereotypes. To some he fits perfectly the stereotype of the caudillo (strongman), who is working hand in hand with Fidel Castro to turn Venezuela into a state-socialist, authoritarian dictatorship. To others he fits the stereotype of the leftist revolutionary and liberator of the oppressed, who is for the first time in the country’s history paying attention to the poor majority. Chavez feeds these stereotypes by giving Castro-like marathon speeches, railing against U.S. imperialism, and referring to the opposition as “rancid oligarchs.” However, the truth about Venezuela is much more complicated.
Chavez came to power largely as a result of the collapse of Venezuela’s oil-driven economy and restricted representative democracy and of his own charisma, his ability to unite a fragmented left and the country’s poor behind him. In the six years that he has been in power, he and his movement have instituted one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, decisively broken with the old political establishment, redirected much of Venezuela’s oil wealth toward social programs, pursued alternatives to neoliberal development, and worked toward what Chavez calls a “multi-polar world,” where the United States is no longer dominant. However, the process has been messy—with many missteps and much resistance.
The Effort to Transform VenezuelaThere are three areas where Chavez has shifted course from that of his predecessors and of most other Latin American governments. First, the new Constitution opened the country’s politics to much broader participation and, simultaneously, strengthened the position of the president. The participatory aspect of the Constitution means that, on a national level, ordinary citizens may now petition for four different types of referenda: for the recall of elected representatives, the repeal of laws, consultation on issues of national importance, and the approval of constitutional amendments. Although it is debatable whether referenda are a good idea for democracies (think of California), Venezuela’s politics for most of its forty...
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