No member of “The Worst of the Worst”—a list put together by George Ayittey for Foreign Policy—would be expected to address the legislature of his country with an open attitude and with calls for democratic dialogue. “The Worst of the Worst” is a list of the world's tyrants, autocrats and dictators. Prominent members include, among others, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir (indicted by the International Criminal Court), Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, Europe's last and only dictator.
But just recently, while addressing Venezuela's National Assembly, President Hugo Chávez, a member of the list, spoke with a tone of reconciliation, made repeated calls for dialogue with the opposition and even pledged to end in five months the 18-month special decree powers conferred to him by the Assembly in December 2010.
What does this say about the nature of Chávez' regime? Ayittey included Chávez in the list for having “...jailed opposition leaders, extended term limits indefinitely, and closed independent media.” All of that is true. But at the same time, it's true that all this has been done in a way that makes Chávez quite different from most members of the list.
While it's true that opposition leaders have been persecuted, it's also true that opposition parties are permitted in Venezuela, and are in fact very vocal and active. It's true that Chávez sought (and got) indefinite re-election. But at the same time, it's true that he has won a number of elections that are presumed fair, since no credible evidence of fraud has ever been presented. Chávez did even allow international observation at some of these elections.
It's true that critical media are tightly harassed. But at the same time it's true that criticism of Chávez is everywhere, in the newspapers, in TV shows, blogs, and the radio. It's true that the President enjoys substantial powers; but at the same time it's true that such powers have been granted to him by an Assembly which is, at least nominally, an independent branch of the state.
In summary, it's true that Venezuela is very far from being a normally democratic country under the Rule of Law. But it's also true that such state of affairs has been produced carefully and gradually, taking care to preserve democratic forms and appearances, and maintaining actual spaces for dissent and opposition.
This peculiar feature of the chavista regime is one of the pillars of its stability. This is a regime that presides over a ruinous economy, run by a confrontational president who defies the international community. This is a regime that faces growing accusations of ties with terrorist groups. Venezuela has the highest inflation in the hemisphere, and its economy has been in a recession for two years now. And yet, the regime appears to be very stable, meaning that there are no imminent threats to its survival. There are no signs of disloyalty among the military. On the contrary, there's been an intense process of chavista indoctrination. The economy is in serious trouble, but the government has full control of oil revenues, which are by far the most important part of Venezuela's economy. In addition to all this, the ambiguous nature of the regime makes it hard for the international community to treat it as undemocratic, and the actual spaces that still exist for dissent relieve internal pressure.
None of this means that Venezuela is going the right way: only that Mr. Chávez and his project have good chances of survival and continuity.
*Andres Mejia Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the academic director at Bogotá's Instituto de Ciencia Politica.