By the thinnest of margins--51 to 49--this Sunday, Venezuelan voters defeated a referendum that would have drastically increased President Hugo Chávez’s already tremendous powers. The 69 proposed amendments would have further consolidated Chavez’s gradual but unyielding effort to seize control of just about every level of political and economic life in Venezuela. Among other things, the amendments would have granted Chávez control over the central bank, allowed the government to detain citizens without charges during states of emergency, and opened the way for Chávez’s unlimited reelection. In vague but perhaps chilling language, the proposed amendments would have also officially refounded the country along “socialist, anti-imperialist” lines.
Chávez attempted to sweeten the appeal for the amendments by including proposals for a retirement fund for informal workers and lowering the minimum voting age from 18 to 16. Sort of a “Bolivarian Revolution,” but with a French twist. But the allure of even greater state largesse was not enough to give Chávez the resounding victory that he most certainly expected following his most recent and decisive reelection a year ago. Unlike the super-majorities that Chávez counted on in previous elections, this time he was forced to fight tooth and nail, even among the country’s sizeable poor population that had up until this point responded positively to its beloved leader’s commands.
Since first elected in 1998, Chávez has perfected the playbook of “democratic authoritarianism”--using a popular majority and relatively (although certainly contested) open democratic elections to consolidate his control.* Unlike a violent revolution, democratic authoritarianism is by definition a more gradual process. One only has to look to Putin’s Russia to see another crafty ruler using swollen state revenues and the ostensible legitimacy of the ballot box to gradually but radically institutionalize his personal grip on power. If Fidel Castro was a hare during his sudden and total revolution in Cuba in 1959, Hugo Chávez is taking the tortoise approach in Venezuela in the 21st century. Different animals, perhaps, but the goal of absolute rule remains the same.
For those concerned with growing threats to democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela under Chávez’s rule, it is tempting to view the result as a great victory. Make no mistake, the vote was a devastating setback for the Venezuelan president. But while there is evidence to suggest that the “No” vote’s victory will turn out to be Chávez’s “Stalingrad”--the first lost large battle in his eventual defeat-- one must be careful not to overestimate the lasting significance of the vote. Fueled by seemingly endless oil revenues and the overlooked fact that just short of 50 percent of Venezuelan voters cast ballots to effectively turn Venezuela into a dictatorship, Chávez is likely to continue attempting to make his Bolivarian Revolution permanent.
Separately but equally as important, we must not overlook the government's response to Sunday's referendum, which was in and of itself stunning. Not only did Chávez lose the vote, but his government appears not to have tampered with the results and allowed the vote to stand. There are some reports that, seeing that the opposition had collected tally sheets, the Venezuelan military might have pressured a reluctant Chávez to accept the vote. The several-hour delay in announcing the results has opened the door for this sort of interpretation. Whatever the case might be, given that he already controls the national electoral commission (in addition to virtually every significant political body in the country), there was reason to believe that Chávez would be tempted to manipulate the outcome, especially if it was very close. In fact, cynical electoral tampering has been a hallmark of other "democratic authoritarian" regimes in Latin America such as the PRI's 71-year rule in Mexico or Alberto Fujimori's Peru in the 1990s.
Chávez’s apparent decision to allow the opposition victory is perhaps explained by the paradox of democratic authoritarianism: He needs at least the semblance of popular support and democratic elections in order to push forward with the largely undemocratic revolution. Thus, any lasting allegations that he had disavowed the “people’s voice” (in this case, a vote against him) would have been devastating for his populist image and therefore his legitimacy.
There are compelling reasons why good money would be won by betting on the Bolivarian Revolution to continue despite Sunday’s setback. In essence, Chávez has already won the game. His control over the courts, congress, most city and state governments, media, and the critical oil sector ensure that Chávez has all the advantages one could ever want when dueling it out for political power. One is reminded of the quote from the film History of the World: Part I when Mel Brooks’ Louis XVI announced, “It’s good to be the King.”
But we should not forget that, behind the bloated rhetoric, Hugo Chávez is an undeniable megalomaniac. His raison d’être is accumulating power, and everything he has done over the past eight years has made it infinitely easier for him to seize even more power. Take his already tremendous authority, add $60-70 billion in annual oil revenues, and a large section of the population that is still resentful at the ruling class that neglected its plight before Chávez took office, and you have a formidable political force for years to come.
The referendum vote did reveal cracks in the Chávez juggernaut. Most noteworthy, voter turnout in many supposed Chavista strongholds was at times spotty, if not outright low. This partly reflects another paradox in the Bolivarian revolution--price controls have led to scarcity of basic foodstuffs such as milk. At the same time, the country consumes record levels of Scotch, tourist flights to the United States are full, and the shopping malls are as crowded as ever. These sorts of glaring inequalities are exactly what Chávez claimed that his revolution would eliminate. The irony apparently was not lost on at least some of his former fervently loyal supporters. These erstwhile Chavistas wanted justice and opportunities, not a dictator for life.
It is an encouraging sign that Sunday’s vote appeared to proceed peacefully. And while we may never know why Chávez ultimately decided to respect the outcome, there will certainly be more sparks as Hugo Chávez rebounds from this setback and once again sets his sights on his socialist utopia for Venezuela. Immediately following his arrest after leading a failed coup attempt in 1992, then-paratrooper commander Chávez made a televised speech from jail where he encouraged his fellow coup plotters to lay down their arms por ahora (“for now”). This bravado in the face of adversity over fifteen years ago is now a hallmark of Chávez’s rule as president. We might have seen a non-violent outcome in Venezuela’s vote this past weekend, but there is reason to believe that peace in this Latin American country could just be por ahora.
Russell Crandall is a professor of politics at Davidson College and a fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is the author of the upcoming book The United States and Latin America after the Cold War.
*Correction: The original version of this article contained a copy error misstating the date Chavez was first elected.
By Russell Crandall