On September 26, Venezuela will hold parliamentary elections. Since Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency in 1998, Venezuela has been transformed from a country with democratic institutions to one where the president controls all branches of government. The upcoming elections serve the purpose of making Chavez look like he is presiding over a free society but in reality provide no real chance for change. In this context, it is important to understand the true nature of the present Venezuelan political reality.

Many observers, journalists and scholars have tried to define the Chavez regime. Some have referred to it as being neo-populist and others have called it an illiberal democracy. Neo-populist refers to a regime characterized by the mobilization of marginal masses led by a charismatic leader. Indeed, Chavez has established a direct and authoritarian relationship with the people and has redistributed state funds amongst the poor in order to secure their support and win legitimacy for his regime.  The legislature, the judiciary and other branches of government and civil society have become subordinated to his will and executive authority. Such was the case with regimes like that of Juan Peron in Argentina in the 40‘s and 50‘s and with some differences the government of Getulio Vargas in Brazil in the 30’s and 40’s.

An illiberal democracy is a regime that mixes authoritarianism and elections. This type of regime uses democracy to take power and then governs in authoritarian ways.

Undoubtedly, the Chavez regime includes aspects of both populism and illiberal democracy. However, I would argue that the Chavez regime is moving beyond populism and illiberal democracy in the direction of totalitarianism.

Zbigniew Brzezinski defined totalitarianism as a system of government where instruments “of political power are wielded without restraint by centralized leadership … for the purpose of affecting a social revolution , including the conditioning of man on the basis of certain arbitrary ideological assumptions… in an atmosphere of coerced unanimity of the entire population”. [1] This provides a good definition of where the government of Venezuela is heading.

First, there is the element of indoctrination.

Hugo Chavez has created a new socialist ethos. Thus, a “new man” who embraces a revolutionary ethical spirit must be created.  This leads to the need to adopt a reform in the educational system, especially the adaptation of the curriculum to socialist values, along with measures to neutralize the competing capitalist ethos.  In August 2009, the Chavez-controlled Venezuelan parliament proceeded to adopt a new law of education. The law makes “Bolivarian doctrine” the basis of education at all levels, a move that educators view as requiring them to indoctrinate students with the views of the ruling party. Such an educational transformation is clearly a first step towards the consolidation of a totalitarian state since the state aims at having full control over the minds of people.

It is also the intention of the Chavez regime to abolish private property and to repress independent groups in society. Private property represents the ultimate bastion of individual and societal power and freedom because what belongs to individuals represents power that is independent from the state.  That is why authoritarian regimes that have abolished civil or political liberties but allowed private property to survive have not been able to exercise full control of society. Even in classical populist regimes which were authoritarian, entrepreneurs could often be intimidated but private property was never eradicated.

Chavez has not only sought to uproot the business community  through expropriation but also  to eliminate the power of the labor unions and workers. The labor unions are seen by Chavez as tied to the old regime.  Chavez proceeded to suppress the labor unions by undermining their basic right to organize, by  interfering in union elections, by refusing to bargain collectively with them, by establishing mechanisms of union control and by vetoing unions thought to be opposed to the government.

The Bolivarian state wants to rule in a most arbitrary manner and have its prerogatives above any civil group. The Chavez regime has established a relationship with the people in the abstract. In the eyes of the regime the people are anonymous; a mass prone to manipulation. The connection of the people should be to the leader which in turn uses the masses to consolidate absolute power. Therefore, organizations, including workers organizations are nothing but an annoyance and an obstacle to the overwhelming power of the state.

Another symptom of totalitarianism inside Venezuela is that a society of fear has been established.  The media has been constantly harassed and media entrepreneurs have been jailed. Laws have been established criminalizing slander of the president and people holding public office. Blacklisting is another expertise of the Chavez regime. After the August, 2004 recall referendum that challenged the continuation of Hugo Chavez’s presidency, a process of systematic blacklisting began. Chavez authorized a Venezuelan congressman to obtain copies of the list of signatures of those who signed the petition for the recall referendum.  The government used these lists to fire workers and block job applications. Furthermore, during the 2005 parliamentary elections a new database was created called the “Maisanta” program. That program contained detailed information on all registered voters, totaling over 12 million citizens. It informed the user if the registered voter had signed the recall referendum against Chavez, abstained from voting in elections, participated in the government’s popular programs or signed a counter-petition for a recall referendum against opposition legislators. This list broadened the number of people targeted by the government to either be fired or denied a job or a contract.

By the same token, some opposition leaders have been forced into exile. Those opposition leaders who have won elections have been undermined and not allowed to perform their jobs. The central government interfered in local and municipal affairs and weakened the power of opposition leaders by using mostly illegal means.

Furthermore, in typical totalitarian fashion the written law becomes meaningless and irrelevant including the laws enacted by the regime itself. As an example; a banker was detained in 2007 on charges of corruption. A court ordered a retrial and reinstated a detention order but the appeals court for Caracas ordered his release in October 2009 because his detention exceeded a two year limit. Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, following the spirit of the law, granted the banker conditional release pending trial. Shortly after intelligence officers arrested the judge on charges of corruption, aiding an evasion of justice, abuse of authority and conspiracy.  President Chavez made a personal appeal to send Judge Afiuni to prison for a period of 35 years and the Bolivarian intelligence Service (SEBIN) issued a fugitive arrest warrant against the banker.

As it is in a totalitarian regime, there is no real distinction between government arbitrariness and the law. In the Chavista state the valid law is identical with “common sense”. But this “common sense” is not the common sense of free individuals but the one dictated from above. This is identical with Hitler’s dictum that in Nazi Germany there was “no distinction between law and ethics” or between law and expected behavior. According to the Bolivarian-Chavista logic, Judge Afiuni was expected to send the banker to prison because that was Chavez’s implicit will. Afiuni “should have known this” instead of following the written law. Thus, Chavez does not respect laws, not even those written by his own regime. The principle of judicial procedure and court protection for individual rights is embedded in the Bolivarian-inspired 1999 constitution. Still, everyone is supposed to know that it does not apply to real life.

Analyzing the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union, Hanna Arendt has made the following observation, whose relevance on the Venezuelan case does not need any further explanation:The publication of the constitution turned out to be the beginning of the gigantic super purge which in nearly two years liquidated the existing administration and erased all traces of normal life …From then on the constitution of 1936 played exactly the same role the Weimar constitution played under the Nazi regime: it was completely disregarded but never abolished.[2]

Chavez has also moved to establish full control of the military by attempting to integrate the national armed forces into the Bolivarian political project.  Indeed, Chavez sees the military as the backbone of his social and political revolution. Consequently he has been trying to subordinate the army to a dictatorial-revolutionary process.  Chavez promotes or dismisses army officers based on loyalty to his regime. The military was given new roles in administration and in social welfare programs.

However, since Chavez does not fully trust the military, he passed a law creating a militia that depends directly on the executive branch. This militia has a privileged position within the armed forces. We are talking here about a parallel military force that can recruit from the people, whether they are Venezuelans or foreigners, which may include Cubans or even Iranians. In fact, Cuban officers were incorporated into the army and Iranian Revolutionary guards were reportedly seen in Venezuela. It is realistic to assume that this force could help protect and consolidate a totalitarian regime as the Iranian revolutionary guards and other similar praetorian forces usually do.

The upcoming parliamentary elections in Venezuela do not look very promising. Government money is being used to finance Chavez-backed candidates. Likewise, the electoral council is controlled by Chavez. A few months ago, a law was approved, redrawing the districts where the opposition could win. But even if the opposition wins, nothing will stop Chavez on his path towards tyranny.

Therefore, it is important that the opposition participates in the election because it is a sign that the opposition still exists and there is still hope. The fact that the opposition is running on a united front is also a good sign.  Beyond this, there is no way the opposition will be allowed to hold any power, even if they win a substantial number of seats.  This is why, the opposition can no longer relate to the country’s political system as a democracy.  It needs to be more active as a social movement by mobilizing the masses, by denouncing the regime and exposing its true nature; and; by vigorously demanding a restoration of true democracy.

[1] This definition is provided by Zbigniew Brzezinsky. See Linz, Juan, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc, Colorado, 2000, p. 66

[2] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, New York, 1979, p. 394-395


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