Caracas, Venezuela – Some Venezuelans have trouble explaining to their American counterparts what the country is currently going through. The reason, they say, is that some Americans take for granted a political system that guarantees rights such as freedom of speech. Americans seem to have no trouble identifying the antithesis of their democracy: outright dictatorships like the regime in North Korea. But they have a harder time understanding the nature of governments who fall in the gray area of neither democracy nor dictatorship.
Fear over the continued direction of Venezuela and the opportunity to observe the domestic voting process at home is why I traveled from New York City to Caracas yesterday, arriving after a long journey that involved multiple flight delays. For me, like other Venezuelans who are living abroad, this election is an historic opportunity to begin to change the unfortunate direction of our country.
Venezuela is the perfect example of what Fareed Zakaria called in The Future of Freedom an illiberal democracy, a government that legitimizes itself through popular vote but one that has abandoned most tenets of republicanism. Since he took power in 1998, Hugo Chávez has systematically eroded Venezuela’s institutions. The rule of law has been severely damaged—both in military and civil affairs—and the Constitution is no longer the highest expression of the land.
The notion of limited powers of government is also dead in the water: Congress has granted Hugo Chávez special powers on several occasions to rule by decree. Infringements on private property and government expropriations have been a recurring drama over the last decade. Finally, no objective analysis can claim that our government exhibits separation of powers or checks and balances. Virtually all branches of government are in the hands of the executive.
In short, Hugo Chávez’ revolution has been an extraordinary attempt, relying mostly on popular sovereignty, to transform Venezuela’s government into an authoritarian one-party system. Today we have the real opportunity to defeat Chávez with the same system that has allowed his authoritarian revolution to thrive. The latest polls give challenger Henrique Capriles a slight edge, so many of us are optimistic. Having said this, let us not forget that Latin American history shows that in these polarized environments, it is usually the military that has the last word. All I pray for is a victory that is not marked by bloodshed and social unrest.
*Diego DSola is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He studies at Fordham University and writes a bimonthly column for the influential Venezuelan newspaper TalCual. Follow him on Twitter: @DiegoDsola.