Until Sunday, Latin American dictatorships had been established by force. It usually took a strong-arm president, a coup d'etat or a violent revolution to violate a constitution and subject the people to a regime that deprived them of their civil and human rights.
But now some people are freely choosing to be ruled by a dictator!
In a referendum Sunday, when a majority of Venezuelan voters chose to abolish term limits and allow socialist President Hugo Chavez to continue running for office indefinitely, they created the ultimate paradox: a democratic dictatorship!
I know. It doesn't make sense. How can people vote to deprive themselves of their own freedom? Are they masochists?
With Fidel Castro as his mentor, Chavez never has hidden his intention to build a Venezuela in the image of communist Cuba. But why would more than 6 million Venezuelans vote to turn their country into a Cuban-style failure? What do they see in Cuba that they want to emulate? How can they fall for all that socialist crap about combating social inequality, given that their model country's revolution got rid of the rich and made everyone equally poor?
Obviously, thanks to Chavez's huge propaganda machine, many Venezuelans have a distorted image of the realities of life in Cuba, where repression and misery reign.
Chavez also has uprooted deep-seated anti-American sentiment in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. By spending much of Venezuela's oil wealth on the poor, Chavez has purchased the loyalty of many of his followers, with jobs and welfare benefits. He has created a solid base of supporters, who obviously don't care whether Chavez becomes another Castro.
Before Sunday, Chavez already controlled the Venezuelan legislature, the courts and even the National Electoral Council. Everyone knew that indefinite re-election was the last piece of the puzzle he needed to crown himself as Venezuela's permanent ruler. On Sunday, by a 54-46 percent margin, Chavez got what he wanted.
It's not a mandate. The referendum results show that Venezuela is deeply polarized between those who adore and those who despise their loudmouthed "presidente." Yet Chavez said he saw Sunday's referendum victory as a clear mandate to transform Venezuela into a socialist country.
"Those who voted 'yes' today voted for socialism, for revolution," a victorious Chavez told his followers from a balcony at the Miraflores presidential palace Sunday night. He has said he plans to rule until at least 2049, when he will be 95 years old. Apparently, he wants to break Fidel Castro's record as Latin America's longest-lasting caudillo .
Like Castro, Chavez is not someone who reaches out to the opposition or who tries to find consensus with his opponents. With Chavez, you are either with him or against him. And if you are against him, his job is never to negotiate. He aims to crush you.
Some naive observers and many bleeding-heart liberals argue that Chavez still will have to run for re-election in 2012 and that somehow democracy has been enhanced because the people now have the freedom to keep re-electing a popular leader. Perhaps they would be right if they were speaking of a country with much stronger checks and balances, which would prevent the incumbent from manipulating elections.
But in Venezuela, Chavez already has all the power, and he shamelessly uses government resources to promote his personal political agenda. While campaigning to abolish term limits, he already showed how he would be unbeatable in future elections. He required TV stations to air his frequent speeches, pressured some 2 million government employees to promote his agenda, and persecuted his political opponents. He will do it again in 2012 and for as long as he pleases.
In a country where the economy is almost completely dependent on oil production, the only thing that could stop Chavez is a continued drop in the price of oil. When he no longer can use Venezuela's oil wealth to create welfare programs and make voters indebted to him, perhaps Venezuelans will boot him out.
But in the meantime, the Venezuelan model for building a democratic dictatorship may be emulated by other socialist Latin American leaders who would like nothing more than to stay in power indefinitely and continue building a united front against the United States. Two Chavez disciples, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, already have used referendums and constitutional changes to prolong their stays in power. As things stand now, both Morales and Correa could govern until 2017, and Nicaragua's Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega, is planning an amendment that would allow him to run for office again.
In other words, all of them are planning to outlast President Barack Obama — perhaps as presidents for life. Yet for those naive enough to believe them, including many leftist Americans, these dictators still will call themselves "democratic" leaders if they succeed.
At a time when Latin Americans need to hear that there are better alternatives to Chavez's totalitarian and hatemongering methods and when the new U.S. president has a unique opportunity to promote real democracy in Latin America, unfortunately President Obama seems to be following the Bush administration's playbook on how to squander U.S. relations with our hemispheric neighbors.
While Obama keeps sending special U.S. emissaries to the rest of the world, the United States keeps ignoring the coalition of socialist dictatorships that is lining up against us in our own backyard.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.