The Kingfish of Caracas

Venezuela, once the beauty queen of Latin American democracies, has lost her good looks.  Today, the oil-rich country is more often compared with communist Cuba than with democratic Costa Rica.  Venezuela’s dramatic fall from grace has many causes, but most would blame Hugo Chávez Frias, her president since 1998 and, today, Latin America’s most successful power artist.  The ex-paratrooper and coup plotter dominates his nation’s politics as no figure has done since Rómulo Betancourt in the 1960’s or, perhaps more aptly, since the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez in the early 20th century.  Chávez’s career confirms how one man can overwhelm even a mature Latin democracy.

Years ago, in The Machiavellians, James Burnham warned of modern democracy’s tendency to devolve into Bonapartism, the centralization of power in one man and the war against liberty in the name of democracy.  Chávez deserves special study as an exemplar of this political pathology.  He has, after all, won three general elections and willingly submitted to a recall referendum.  All his coups against his nation’s democratic institutions have been ratified by the people’s vote.

Although he encourages comparison with Castro, Chávez bears, in my opinion, more of a resemblance to Louisiana governor and senator Huey P. Long, the Bonaparte...

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