I was surprised - no, astonished - to wake up Monday morning and find that Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman, isn't all that strong.
This aspiring Fidel couldn't even manage to steal an election. In an impressive display of spunk, a majority of voters in his oil-rich domain turned down the aspiring dictator's bid to junk the last remnants of Venezuelan democracy. All 69 of his proposed changes to what's left of Venezuela's tattered constitution were rejected at the polls. ¡Viva Venezuela! What next, Cuba Libre?
The vote was close - 51 to 49 percent - but the impact of the election was far greater than the numbers might indicate. To quote the AP dispatch out of Caracas, it was "a stinging defeat" for the wannabe tyrant. What a disgrace: Who ever heard of a dictator who couldn't rig a plebiscite? It's astounding, the resilience of democratic hopes in a country that was supposed to be well on its way to becoming the next gulag.
Latin American caudillos just ain't what they used to be. Not when Venezuelans refuse to be intimidated by all Comrade Chavez's threats, tirades and general bluster. For example: "Anyone who votes No is voting for George W. Bush. Our true enemy is the U.S. empire, and on Sunday, December 2, we're going to give another knockout to Bush."
But the morning after the election, it wasn't the American president who'd been knocked out. Instead, democracy had won a split decision. Freedom may still be on the ropes in Venezuela but it's clearly capable of fighting back. Even against xenophobic appeals, pie-in-the-sky promises and government spies on every block. Despite holding all the levers of power, Hugo Chavez and his gulagoisie had been turned back at the ballot box.
The reach of Comrade Chavez's dictatorial ambition extended all the way down to local government. Under his plan, "communal councils" would no longer have been elected but appointed by the central government, i.e., Hugo Chavez. Why, sure. No sense trusting the people in these delicate matters; they might elect the wrong people. This particular change was billed as "participatory democracy," and it doesn't take much imagination to know who would be the chief participant: the selfsame Hugo Chavez.
Under his proposal, whatever's left of the rule of law in Venezuela would have gone, too. El Presidente has already packed that country's Supreme Court by expanding its membership from 20 to 32. In comparison, FDR's court-packing scheme back in 1937 was a modest proposal. And now Hugo Chavez was going to give the state, that is, himself, power to seize property without judicial review. It's a familiar pattern: The Man of the People has this way of substituting his own rule for the people's.
And of course Hugo Chavez would have abolished any limits on his presidential terms. Or as the prospective president-for-life put it, "If God gives me life and help, I will be at the head of the government until 2050!" He'd be 95 years old by then. But, what th' heck, an ailing Fidel Castro has just been re-nominated to Cuba's national assembly at 81.
In both cases, God may have other plans. Venezuela's voters certainly did. Hugo Chavez's proposal to build a bridge to "21st Century socialism" seems to have run into a small obstacle, namely the will of the people, or at least 51 percent of them. Which doesn't mean he won't keep trying to thwart the popular will. But at least for now, democracy lives in Venezuela. In large part that's because students and other "unreliable elements" attached to democratic ideals weren't about to follow Comrade Chavez's orders.
Here's hoping another mouthy president of an oil-rich country, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, takes note. The natives are growing restive.