Dancing towards dictatorship in Venezuela

hugo_chavez-01.jpg I like democracy. There's something about choosing one's leaders - as token a gesture as this may be - that I find vaguely reassuring. But, like most human activity, democracy is prone to some spectacular failures. Like voting for something that has horrendous anti-democratic implications.

Such is the case in Venezuela. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no fan of Hugo Chavez. Censoring media, persecuting opposition and generally behaving like a dictator are not the things that win my respect and admiration. So, I was disheartened when the people of Venezuela voted to remove presidential term limits, effectively allowing Chavez to rule until he dies. Of course, he'll still have to be elected every four years or so, but he's had little trouble with that since coming to power in 1998.

I'll admit this is a tricky case for a democrat. On the one hand, the people of Venezuela chose to remove term limits, and keep choosing Chavez in election after election. From a democratic perspective, this seems all above board. But if you start to look behind the scenery, Chavez's whole deal is a touch rotten. His electoral success so far has been almost entirely predicated on buying the support of Venezuela's poor with lavish social programs funded by booming oil and gas revenue. There's nothing really wrong with that, as it has delivered real quality-of-life improvements for the coutnry's most disadvantaged citizens. But if you're hungry, you'll invariably follow the person who offers to feed you. I can't help but wonder if these people ar being cajoled to vote against their own democratic interests just to satisfy their very immediate material needs.

Again, that's not a huge problem. But when you combine it with Chavez's systemic suppression of dissent, it gets a whole lot more dangerous. Justify it however you like, but when you shut down debate you rip out the heart of a democratic society. It's hard to argue that people making real political choices when they can't access critical or unfiltered information.It's not impossible that Chavez really is the best choice for the people of Venenezuela. Trouble is, he's not letting anyone decide that for themselves. He's telling them, over and over. And that is not democracy.

And now, thanks to this distorted process, Chavez has won the right to govern in perpetuity. This serves no one. Not the citizens of Venezuela, not Venezuela's neightbours, and not anyone who believes in the principles of democracy. A sad day, to be sure.