Hugo Chavez wasn’t a social justice champion – he was a wannabe dictator

On August 4th 2017 Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly voted upon a motion to remove Louisa Ortega, the outspoken chief prosecutor and opponent to the administration under Maduro. In an attempt to enter her offices, she was subject to verbal and physical attack all while vowing to reporters from Al-Jazeera:

“Do you know what they are trying to do? Hide the evidence of corruption and human rights violations in Venezuela. I will continue to denounce and expose them”

She proceeded to take photographs of military police stationed who had been stationed outside her office to intimidate her, and who subsequently removed her. The new constituent assembly proposed by Maduro to aid with work to Venezuela’s constitution is one whose creation goes far above the word controversial. With polling days for the public to vote on it being largely seen as symbolic and corrupt by the public and international community, the Guardian citing Maduro’s move as one which will destroy its democracy, and The Economist perceiving it as Venezuela’s first stumble into a slide towards Dictatorship.

Former Venezuelan Chief Prosecutor Louisa Ortega

To refer to Venezuela as encountering a dangerous slide towards dictatorship is to be largely oblivious to its longer history, its democracy largely being seen as accessory to Chavez, Maduro now seeks to hold power with a firmer grasp. The removal of Ortega, the imposition of the ability to dictate a re-written constitution and with its opposition leaders arrested demonstrates that the time where Venezuela presented itself to the world as a democracy was largely a masquerade under the unfoundedly popular Chavez, with its wholly authoritarian identity being witnessed across the world stage.

To read into Venezuela’s history is to better understand that what it had was far more a dictatorship than democracy. From the economic changes under Chavez, causing the state of affairs today, as well as his direct treatment of the political institutions under him from his capture of power in 1998. And how it’s parliament has not only been relegated into a pseudo advisory position, but how it along with local and international news outlets are treated with utter disdain by Chavez and now Maduro, any attempts to report these issues are suppressed, to the detriment of international organisations and human rights groups, who are victimised much as Ortega alluded to.

Hugo Chavez largely gained political acclaim and celebrity status amongst the international community, particularly across Hollywood and the guru of the left wing, Noam Chomsky. This is primarily due to his changing of economic policy to work towards the eradication of extreme poverty, which saw a decrease to 11% in 2011 and a further drop in 2015 to 4.5%. But while this had earned the late president renown, economists have speculated from the beginning that this would inevitably lead to economic collapse. While these theories were effected by Venezuela’s suspicious refusal to allow critics to analyse the trends too closely, it is a theory now coming to fruition; with annual revenue unable to keep up with the country’s rate of spending over the years, which has pushed inflation up to 800%.

The end result is to the shame of politicians and the suffering of Venezuela’s millions. But the beginning of Chavez’s regime was rooted in his ambition for absolutist power; seeking it out through use of military force[1], the result of which led to his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for two years. He made it clear that his desire for control over Venezuela would not be abated[2], and saw his opportunity via the country’s political institutions. In 1998 he rode off the general discontent and rage against the traditional parties, which acted to make him the stand-out from his rivals[3], advocating for constitutional and economic reform which would then translate into his victory with 56% in the end polls.

While these reforms took place, the underlying use of economic reforms to eradicate poverty can be seen as turning Venezuela into a tyranny of the majority; no other party could seek to defeat Chavez while he had the hearts of the people. While his initial popularity with the people is understandable, experts and onlookers can correlate Chavez’s previous pledge for power and his efforts to appease the people as his creation of a populist dictatorship. Often referred to as ‘Tyranny of the Majority’ by political philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, and while it explicitly benefits the people, it is only while the dictators will is mutually assured.

“The fear of corrupt voting processes and the lack of faith in the secrecy of the vote cause many voters to vote for Chávez, fearing his wrath if they do not.”[4]

In the aftermath of his first re-election, Chavez had a list of those who did not vote for his party which he then went on to arrest and persecute using Venezuela’s security forces. Under his presidency, Venezuela’s international rankings according to Freedom House have decreased significantly due to actions such as this. His popularity overshadows his systematic abuses of power both within government and amongst his captive population. Human Rights Watch worked to catalogue these abuses despite intimidation, which include Chavez’s placement of military officers loyal to his regime in political positions, state sponsored attacks on political opponents, including tenuous relationships between Chavez and the FARC.

“The concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda”. – Human Rights Watch on Chavez’s regime, March 2013

The 2007 election resulted in a narrow defeat, but demonstrated the moment when dictatorial ambition and public interest split, where Chavez sought to repeal term limits and amend the constitution to allow his automatic re-election. In stark contrast to outside perspectives of Chavez as a popular democrat, he persisted in his desire for uninterrupted power over his country. His personal idolisation of famous dictators such as Simon Bolivar as well as active relationships with Fidel Castro of Cuba and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demonstrates a president more than suspiciously enamoured with a mixture of corrupt or absolute dictators of the people.

Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses supporters

His use of military uniform as an iconic image imply a dictator by the will of the people, less than comparable with western democracy and are akin to Castro, Gaddaffi and Hussein of past authoritarian regimes. In 2009, inciting the same popular outrage, he was re-elected and imposed constitutional reforms which repealed term limits and allowed for his indefinite re-election, thus solidifying his position as populist dictator, worlds apart from the popular perceptions of his democratic desires.

Chavez represented a dictator of the proletariat, irrevocably damaging a Venezuelan political system, all while doing so under the auspices of the people’s will. He stands condemned by human rights and International freedom organisations, but his motives still lie masked by a popular perception from outsiders and himself as being a champion of social justice. But it is a masquerade that is easily seen through, and it is one that as demonstrated by the actions of his successor, have been torn away to reveal what his and now Maduro’s regime was and always has been: a Dictatorship.


[1] Corridan, K, E. (2009). ‘Hugo Chavez: Socialism and Dictatorship’. Salve Regina University.

[2] Gott, R. (2000). ‘In The Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela.’. Verso, News York. Pp.65-67

[3] Tinkunas, H. McCoy, J. (1998). ‘Observation of the 1998 Venezuelan Elections’. The Carter Centre. Atlanta, USA. Pp.35-37

[4]Corridan, K, E. (2009). ‘Hugo Chavez: Socialism and Dictatorship’. Salve Regina University.


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