Did adverse conditions force such Latin American strongmen Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro to clamp down, or did they hide their authoritarian designs from the start?
LIMA — What leads a regime to take the radical path? Is it preordained, or do events radicalize governments? In Cuba and Venezuela, two governing systems mostly closely adhering to communism's core ideology, the original revolutionary leaders never actually set out to create communist states.
In 1959, when Fidel Castro led a guerrilla campaign to oust the conservative regime of Fulgencio Batista, and after his triumphal entry into Havana, Cuba's new leader clearly stated that his was not a communist revolution. In 1998, Hugo Chávez likewise told the Univisión reporter Jorge Ramos that he believed the Cuban regime was a dictatorship, and separately assured the Peruvian television presenter Jaime Bayly that he was not leading a socialist movement.
Later, Castro would qualify the Cuban revolution as Marxist-Leninist, vowing that he would be a communist to the end. And Chávez coined the term "21st-Century Socialism" to define the nature of his regime. In both cases, there is an obvious answer to the question of what happened between their first statements and what eventually emerged once they were firmly at the helm. One possibility is that they had both deliberately lied Another is that they became increasingly radical in response to the adverse circumstances they faced.
In the case of Cuba, a sequence of events could explain the regime's radicalization. In 1960, the United States imposed initial sanctions on Cuba, reacting to the nationalization of U.S. companies on the island, and then expanded to a full-fledged trade embargo. In 1961, it organized the failed Bay of Pigs invasion intended to overthrow Castro. The Missile Crisis followed in 1962, after which the Cuban regime began backing various leftist revolts abroad in response to America's unconditional support of anti-Communist dictatorships and several CIA attempts to kill Castro.
With Venezuela, there can be no doubt about the critical juncture: the 2002 strike at the state energy firm PDVSA, which channels most of the country's vast oil exports, followed by a failed coup attempt against Chávez. Virtually all the government's actions to accumulate powers came after that.
Events can clearly play a role in mutating regimes.
An August article in Spain's El País daily observed that the country's manufacturing base was wiped out because of a wave of expropriations and controls that began in 2003. That was the year when proposals were first made to maintain Chávez in power until 2021. The Organic Law of 2004 allowed the Chavista system to take control of the country's Supreme Court, and that was also the year the regime began curbing freedom of expression, according to Human Rights Watch.
It should be noted that some of the chief critics of authoritarian rule under Chávez and now under President Nicolás Maduro, like the former legislator Maria Corina Machado and the detained dissident Leopoldo López, had backed the failed coup against Chávez.
Events can clearly play a role in mutating regimes, but in democracies, political crises tend to merely prompt resignations or general elections. There is something suspect about a regime that uses riots or a failed coup as a pretext to clamp down. It is the smoking gun that points to our first explanation: that charismatic leaders' true ambitions are revealed only when they are firmly in power.