Although some authoritarian sympathizers such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and actor Sean Penn felt compelled to stand in solidarity with the grieving people of Venezuela, the vast majority of Americans do not have a favorable opinion of the late dictator:
Very few voters have a favorable opinion of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez who died earlier this week, but they’re also not very optimistic that U.S. relations with Venezuela will get any better.
The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just six percent (6%) of Likely U.S. Voters share a favorable opinion of Chavez. Sixty-seven percent (67%) view the late Venezuelan leader unfavorably, while 27% are not sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)
His successors would be in better shape if Chávez had been a typical South American strongman. But he wasn’t just another caudillo who stuffed ballot boxes and rounded up his enemies. As I describe in my book The Dictator’s Learning Curve, Chávez’s rule was far more sophisticated than such heavy-handed regimes. Like many authoritarian leaders, Chávez centralized power for his own use. Not long after taking office in 1999, he controlled every branch of government, the armed forces, the central bank, the state-owned oil company, most of the media, and any private sector business he chose to expropriate. But Venezuela never experienced massive human rights abuses. Dissidents didn’t disappear in the night, and for all Chavez’s professed love for Fidel Castro, his regime was never as repressive as Castro’s tropical dictatorship.
And unlike Castro and many other autocrats, Chávez didn’t fear elections; He embraced them. Most opposition leaders will tell you that Venezuelan elections are relatively clean. The problem isn’t Election Day—It’s the other 364 days. Rather than stuffing ballot boxes, Chávez understood that he could tilt the playing field enough to make it nearly impossible to defeat him. Thus, the regime’s electoral wizards engineered gerrymandering schemes that made anything attempted in the American South look like child’s play. Chávez’s campaign coffers were fed by opaque slush funds holding billions in oil revenue. The government’s media dominance drowned out the opposition. Politicians who appeared formidable were simply banned from running for office. And the ruling party became expert in using fear and selective intimidation to tamp down the vote. Chávez took a populist message and married it to an autocratic scheme that allowed him to consolidate power. The net effect over Chávez’s years was a paradoxical one: With each election Venezuela lost more of its democracy.
Reading about Chávez’s reign of terror -- if that’s the right word -- is a lot like reading a passage from George Orwell’s 1984. In Venezuela, much like in Orwell’s fictional dystopia, the government controls every facet of your life; genuine political dissent, free elections, and basic human freedoms are suppressed by the ruling party. But now at least a new chapter in Venezuela’s history has begun in earnest -- after all, the nation’s top kleptocrat is dead -- so here’s to hoping that democracy and freedom can finally flourish in the oil-rich country . . . even if the chances of that happening are exceedingly slim.