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Chavez Was Authoritarian, but Also Elected

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 6, 2013

Supporters of Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez react to the announcement of his death outside the hospital where he was being treated, in Caracas March 5, 2013. Supporters of Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez react to the announcement of his death outside the hospital where he was being treated, in Caracas March 5, 2013 (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Courtesy Reuters).

In the wake Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s death on Tuesday, obituaries and analyses of Chavez’s legacy have already flooded the media. To be sure, his fourteen-year presidency was not without controversy and his legacy will undoubtedly be tarnished by the violence, botched economy and deeply divided society he leaves behind. But among a considerable population of Venezuelans, mostly poor, Chavez will be remembered as hero. After all, despite his autocratic tendencies, Chavez was popularly elected three times.

As an obituary in Bloomberg Businessweek notes, Chavez was a pioneer of a form of government often referred to by political scientists as “competitive authoritarian regimes.” As the Businessweek piece explains:

“These are regimes where leaders gain power through democratic elections and then change the constitution and other laws to weaken checks and balances on the executive, thus ensuring the regime’s continuity and its almost total autonomy while still retaining a patina of democratic legitimacy. It is not accidental that Chavez was the longest-serving head of state in the Americas.”

In my new book Democracy in Retreat, I explore this trend of elected authoritarianism and its relationship to the overall decline of democracy worldwide. Like Chavez, a spate of other elected leaders—Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Ollanta Humara in Peru, to name a few— have shown little dedication to constitutionalism or the rule of law once firmly entrenched in office. In a new excerpt from the book now available on CFR.org, I explain Chavez’s rise and the subsequent revolt of the Venezuelan middle class.

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