Venezuela: Maduro Fails Democracy Test, But Is He A Dictator?

Massive protests Wednesday target recent actions by Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro for banning a referendum and evading parliament. Does he compare to Latin American strongmen of the past?

Anti-Maduro protests in Valencia, Venezuela, on Oct. 24
Anti-Maduro protests in Valencia, Venezuela, on Oct. 24
Ronal F. Rodríguez


CARACAS â€" In the mid-20th century, when dictatorial regimes were imposing themselves across Latin America, Venezuela was a solid democracy. Today, things have reversed: while democracy is well-established in most nations of the continent, it is the self-styled Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela that is sliding backward toward dictatorship.

When President Nicolás Maduro made an end-run around the opposition-controlled Parliament earlier this month by submitting the country's budget to the Supreme Court, the speaker of Parliament, Henry Ramos Allup, called Maduro a "dictator." Five days later, when the country's top electoral court suspended the process of collecting signatures for a referendum to end the president's term, the entire opposition joined in calling the Maduro government a dictatorship. (A massive rally in Caracas is slated for Wednesday to protest the shut-down of the referendum effort.)

The Chavista or Bolivarian regime's democratic credentials were always dubious to many. Its concentration of powers, lack of checks, fuzzy limits between leader, political project, ruling party, government and state, alongside discretional use of public resources, have all undermined Venezuela's democracy. Yet the system's founder, the late Hugo Chávez, could always point out his strong support with voters to dispel doubts and hold off challenges.

Classifying Venezuela as a dictatorship or democracy has not been easy these last years. The country ruled by Chávez was neither entirely democratic, nor dictatorial. The presence of an opposition that could compete in elections, though often in unequal conditions, made this rather a moderately authoritarian system.

Turn at the polls

But the picture has changed since Chávez's death. The argument of electoral support has vanished by the ruling party's showing in the last three elections. Maduro won a narrow majority â€" with just 223,599 more votes â€" in the 2013 presidential elections, a Pyrrhic victory in the municipal elections and finally, was defeated outright in the parliamentary elections last December, which handed the opposition an absolute legislative majority.

Bereft of the electoral argument and making ever greater use of public powers for political ends â€" notably with the judiciary â€" Maduro is now openly accused of being dictator by the opposition.

A dictatorship is a political system where power is concentrated in the hands of a leader, or clique that uses martial law and other extraordinary measures to construct, or reconstruct, a public order. It often seeks to maintain working institutions while presenting its own juridical and political justifications for the supremacy of the ruling clique. Eventually, the rules guiding the duration of a mandate and succession to power become fuzzy, and the reign of the regime becomes indefinite.

A fundamental element of dictatorships is the monopoly of violence and discretional use of instruments of coercion. The heirs of Chavismo do not have this monopoly, as organized crime is out of control in Venezuela and the country lives in constant fear of insecurity. And while various militant "groupings" and associations are linked to the government, this too seems to be beyond control of the leadership.

One must observe that in spite of violations of the political and economic rights of opponents and the presence of political detainees, the regime hasn't come close to committing the kinds of human rights violations seen under Latin American dictatorships in the last century.

Still, while it opened the path to democracy last century, Venezuela, by openly flirting with dictatorial practices, is now causing alarm across a continent where democratic ideals are still far from written in stone.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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