On Sunday the 16 million registered voters of Venezuela get a chance to select their next leader. Hugo Chavez is running for another six year term, and is opposed by former Zulia state Governor Manuel Rosales.
I honestly don’t know much about Rosales. There isn’t much on Wikipedia, and I hadn’t heard too much of him before. That, and the incumbent’s still soaring popularity among Venezuela’s poor, seems to bode well for Chavez’s reelection.
The opposition is more or less united behind Rosales- the other candidates pulled out of the race this summer to support him. Still, it’s doutbful whether he’s got a chance. Monitors from the E.U. and Carter Center will be on hand, but I don’t think Chavez has to cheat to win.
The majority of Venezuelans will probably choose Chavez. In general, that’s consistent with democracy, because Chavez is popular with the majority of the population (with his strongest support coming from the poor). And many of his programs (improving access to higher education and health care) have been laudable. So on the surface I think leftists like Chavez are in many ways better for the poor of Venezuela than any number of rightist leaders who have dominated Latin America in the past, who inevitably gain the support of U.S. business interests.
But I have strong negative feelings about this as well. Chavez has used his massive popularity to influence the actual political system in Venezuela in a way to give himself much more personal power. No one (at least no one I know) really wants a true democracy- where simple majority rule always triumphs.
What we usually mean by democracy is liberal democracy, a combination of majority rule with guarantees of certain rights for minorities who might be oppressed by that majority. For example, the majority in America today might like to take freedom of speech away from the folks at Westboro Baptist Church, or freedom of religion for all Muslims, but groups such as the ACLU will likely fight in favor of these minorities (I picked these issues because they are controversial and lack resolution, and are therefore and indication of the method by which we gradually solve dilemmas). The majority and protected minorities are often in conflict, so those conflicts can only be resolved by a careful balance of institutions.
So the domination of any country, such as Venezuela, by any one ruler, such as Hugo Chavez, can be construed as a bad thing. The opposition in Venezuela says that if Chavez gets another six years there’s no going back. I’m not sure if that’s true (I hope it’s not) but we’ll just have to wait and see.
A commonly expressed complaint about representative democracy is that you have to vote for a single person even though you may agree with both candidates on particular points of policy. I’m not sure who I would choose.
If I was voting in Venezuela today I would be scared of Chavez’s strongman tendencies, skeptical of some of his methods for poverty reduction, wary of his tendency to nationalize companies that might be better dealt with through strong regulation or taxation (while nationalization removes the incentive for other foreign companies to invest in Venezuela, promoting development), but pleased with his moral stance that revenue from natural resources should be distributed to the population, benefitting the poor with education and health. Some critics contend Chavez is buying votes, but it’s hard to see how those critics would see any program that divides wealth among a country that is predominantly of the poor as somehow pandering to the masses.
But regardless, it looks like we’ll get six more years of Chavez…