December 2, 2007
The constitutional referendum being held in Venezuela today is quite a paradox: Voters are faced with the choice of granting virtually unlimited powers on President Hugo Chavez, who is already quite authoritarian, or else standing up to his blandishments. Among other things, the measure would allow Chavez to run for reelection as many times as he wants and would put an end to the Central Bank's autonomy, enabling Chavez to have money printed at will. As usual, Chavez has been accusing the United States of plotting to assassinate him, stoking xenophobia among the masses. The BBC reported that Chavez said on Friday, "If God gives me life and help, I will be at the head of the government until 2050."
According to the Caracas Chronicles (via InstaPundit), exit polls indicate that the results will be very close, so there may yet be a slim hope for a semblance of freedom.
So what can or should the United States do about this clear menace to Venezuela and the rest of Latin America? Until he gets out of hand and commits some drastic provocation, not much. In the Outlook section of today's Washington Post, Donald Rumsfeld suggests "The Smart Way to Beat Tyrants Like Chavez." He talks about reviving Cold War insitutions like NATO to counteract the threat of neopopulist despots, which doesn't sound convincing to me. His other main suggestion of unleashing new media tools (blogs, YouTube, etc.) to combat false propaganda and raise the consciousness of Third World people offers more hope, but even in that case, there are limits as to what can be done.
The constituent assembly called by Ecuador's president Rafael Correa voted by a large majority to dissolve the existing congress, notwithstanding the lack of any constitutional provision or precedent for doing so. If they get away with this brazen power grab, it will signify a major defeat for the cause of constitutional democracy in the Andean nation. See BBC. As we have learned from Venezuela, "illiberal" democracies led by fierce populists such as Hugo Chavez are prone to become more and more authoritarian over time.