Democracy or Dictatorship in Venezuela

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IF WE READ THE NEWSPAPERS and watch TV in the United
States, we are told that President Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela is a “dictator,” “authoritarian,” “a threat to
democracy” in his own country and the region, and “anti-
U.S.” But leaders who try to empower poor people are
generally vilified in the media and hated by those in
power. Martin Luther King, Jr. now has a national holiday
named after him, but when he was leading marches in the
Chicago suburbs or denouncing the Vietnam War, the
press treated him about as badly as they treat Chavez. And
King was seriously harassed, threatened, and blackmailed
by the FBI.
The idea that Venezuela under Chavez is authoritarian
or dictatorial is absurd, as anyone who has seen the
country in the last nine years can affirm. Most of the
press there opposes the government, more so than in the
rest of the hemisphere – including the United States.
Chavez and his allies have won ten elections, the most
important of which were all http://www.opinionjournal.
com/extra/?id=110005518 certified by international
observers. Several months ago, Chavez lost a referendum
which would have abolished term limits on the presidency
and ratified a move toward “21st century socialism.” It
should be remembered that this is a “socialism” that
respects private property and the private sector – which
is a larger share of the economy than it was before
Chavez took office.
Nonetheless, after losing by a razor-thin margin,
Chavez not only immediately accepted the results but last
Sunday announced a shift of policy in line with the electorate’s
wants. He said that the government would slow its
efforts at political change and concentrate on solving some
of the voters’ top-priority problems, such as crime and
public services.
Chavez’s relations with the Bush Administration and
the rest of the hemisphere are also commonly misrepresented.
The standard media description of the U.S.
role in the military coup that temporarily overthrew
Chavez in 2002 is that the Bush Administration gave it
“tacit support.” But “tacit support” is what the Administration
gave to the opposition oil strike in 2002-
2003, which devastated the economy in another
attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government. In
the April 2002 coup, the Administration actually funded
opposition leaders involved in the coup, according to
the U.S. State Department. White House and State
Department officials also
view/649/45/ lied to the public during the coup, in
an attempt to convince people that the change of government
was legitimate.
Rather than apologizing for supporting these attempts
to overthrow and destabilize Venezuela’s democratic government,
the Bush Administration went on to fund further
opposition efforts, and continues to do so today – including
2007/12/01/AR2007120101636.html funding of the
recent student movement in Venezuela, according to U.S.
government documents. Is it any wonder that Chavez does not have kind words to say about Bush?
Chavez is not the Bush Administration’s only target in
the region. Just this week Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first
indigenous president and another anti-poverty crusader,
repeated his denunciation of Washington’s support for
right-wing opposition forces in Bolivia. Most of South
America – including Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia,
and Uruguay – has left-of-center governments who understand
that the Bush Administration’s hostility toward
Venezuela is really about the U.S. losing illegitimate power
over sovereign governments, in a region that Washington
considers its “back yard.” They have – including
6520071125 President Lula da Silva of Brazil – consistently
defended Venezuela.
In Venezuela, the economy (real GDP) has grown by
87 percent since the government got control over its
national oil industry in early 2003; poverty has been cut
by half, most of the country has access to free health
care, and educational enrollment has risen sharply.
Venezuelans have repeatedly elected Chavez for the same
reasons that Americans are voting for Barack Obama –
they see him as representing hope, and change, in a
region that needs both. Mark
Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and
Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. (

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