What is happening in Venezuela provides a textbook example of how askew President Bush’s thinking is regarding democracy and dictatorship.
For Bush, as well as his neo-con supporters, democracy is everything. In their minds, democracy equals freedom, which is why they say that the Iraqi people are now “free.” Thus, it is not surprising to see Bush urging his partner and ally Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan, to have national elections, even while Musharraf has declared martial law as part of the “war on terrorism.” If Musharraf were elected, the Bush people, as well as the Musharraf people, would then say, “This is an accountability moment. The voters of Pakistan have spoken.” And then they would argue that Musharraf has the “right” to do whatever he wants, including violating civil liberties as part his “war on terrorism,” just as Bush has done here in the United States.
What’s this have to do with Venezuela? Well, in Venezuela Hugo Chavez, the president of the country, is holding a national election involving constitutional amendments. The amendments are designed to centralize power in Chavez, giving him even more dictatorial powers than he already is wielding.
What Chavez is doing obviously puts Bush and his neo-cons friends in a peculiar bind, given that Bush and the neo-cons worship so passionately at the shrine of democracy. Since the Venezuelan people are voting on these amendments, Bush and his people would ordinarily say that this is democracy at work and, therefore, that there’s nothing dictatorial about it. The only thing that would keep Bush from praising what Chavez is doing is his personal animosity toward Chavez, unlike his respect and admiration for military strongman Musharraf.
Yet, what is happening in Venezuela shows that a country can have both democracy and dictatorship. Democracy is simply a means by which people can effect a peaceful transition of those in public office. Dictatorship turns on the particular powers that a ruler or regime, democratically elected or not, possesses. Thus, it is entirely possible to have a democratically elected dictator, as many Latin Americans will attest.
What is happening in Venezuela should also remind Americans of the purpose of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution called the federal government into existence, not the other way around. In doing so, it expressly limited the powers of the president and the rest of the federal government. The idea was that if a power wasn’t enumerated in the Constitution, it could not be exercised. To make even more certain that the feds could not abuse people by smashing their fundamental rights, our American ancestors insisted on the passage of the Bill of Rights, which expressly protects the people from the president, the Congress, and all other federal officials, including the U.S. military, the FBI, and the CIA.
The Constitution, with its limitations on presidential and congressional power, is an acknowledgement that the biggest threat to the rights and freedoms of the American people lies not with the “terrorists” but rather with the federal government, especially the president and his minions. Thus, what all too many Americans fail to realize is that when Bush claims the power to ignore the Constitution or ignore laws enacted by Congress, he is behaving in the same classic dictatorial mode in which Venezuela’s Chavez is operating. The difference between Bush and Chavez is that while Chavez is asking the Venezuelan people to grant him dictatorial powers through constitutional amendment, Bush simply assumes such powers as part of his “war on terrorism,” just as his friend and partner Pervez Musharraf has done.