Hugo Chavez is something of a challenge to the worldview of many rich-country observers. His election victory this week has given him, health permitting, a new six-year term as Venezuela’s president. He’s the leading elected autocrat in Latin America and maybe the world.
“Elected autocrat” is a confusing category. According to the model that prevailed for decades after 1945, there are really just two kinds of state: free and unfree. Democracy, good. Autocracy, bad. Chavez represents a third way, one that might be catching on. (Think of the former Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.) He teaches us an important lesson: Democracy isn’t enough.
The reaction to his latest election victory is revealing. Some, a small minority to be sure, celebrate it as democracy at work. Chavez won, in this view, because his policies are popular and rightly so: See how he has driven down poverty, using the country’s oil wealth to give the poor jobs, health care and houses. It’s democratic socialism in action.
Most others see it differently. They’ve noticed the expansion of state control, the systematic erosion of the private sphere, the erasure of checks and balances, the cult of personality, the clientelism, corruption, collapsing productivity and stupendous waste. They see an epic failure. What’s telling, though, is their reluctance to admit this could have happened in a “real”