Latin America

The Cold War's Return

Putin and Chavez promise voters a great leap backward

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On December 2 voters in Russia and Venezuela will go to the polls, choosing to either accelerate the Sovietization and Sandinistaization of their respective societies or—an eventuality that seems less likely—to curtail the centralization of power in the hands of increasingly villainous chief executives. In Russia, parliamentary elections will doubtless further demonstrate the plenary power of Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third term in office though is being advised, Kremlin sources recently told Reuters, to exploit a legal loophole that would allow him to run for another four-year term. In Venezuela, voters will decide on 69 separate changes to the country's "Bolivarian" constitution—previously rewritten by President Hugo Chavez in 1999—including the right of the president to be re-elected indefinitely and a state-mandated six-hour workday. The apparent popularity of Chavez's constitutional tinkering has prompted Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuela's closest South American ally, to push a similar preliminary bill through parliament that will unburden the executive from constitutional limits on re-election.

Though they both reportedly enjoy widespread popularity, neither Chavez nor Putin are taking any chances (and independent polling data from both countries suggest that such unease might be justified). In the run-up to the election in Russia, Mr. Putin has launched a fresh wave of crackdowns on opposition leaders and media outlets. Last weekend police descended upon protesters in St. Petersburg, arresting 200 opposition politicians and activists, including Boris Nemtsov, leader of Union of Rightist Forces, and Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who heads the opposition coalition The Other Russia, as they marched, with barely concealed symbolism, toward the Winter Palace. For his participation in the "illegal" demonstration, Kasparov was sentenced to five days in jail.

Attacks on the independent press are also increasingly common, with murdered Kremlin critics Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya only the most prominent examples. Last week the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta—which is, says the Washington Post's Moscow correspondent, "one of the last outposts of critical journalism in Russia"—was forced to suspend publication of a regional edition after its offices were raided and authorities declared the paper in violation of copyright laws for supposedly possessing "pirated software." According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, two of the paper's other outposts were also raided in 2007, with the authorities again using the possession of counterfeit software as a pretext.

Such public assaults on political opponents could account for the findings of a recent VTsIOM poll demonstrating a startling drop in support for Putin's party: 57 percent said they will cast their ballot for United Russia, a 10 percent drop from the company's previous survey. But in an increasingly Sovietized Russia, where the government controls a disconcerting number of media outlets (the last independent television station was commandeered by the government in 2002), an electoral rejection of Putin is still extremely unlikely. According to the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times, the lead-up to this election has "seen a powerful media campaign boosting Putin and his subordinate United Russia party…Putin has commanded blanket news coverage."

But most distressing are reports that United Russia party officials recently "called in thousands of staff on their day off in an attempt to engineer a massive and inflated victory for President Vladimir Putin," according to a story in Britain's Guardian newspaper. If they choose not to heed the bullying "recommendations" of party heavies, state employees "risk losing their jobs, their accommodation or bonuses"; university students are being threatened with failing grades and expulsion. (Hugo Chavez has employed a similar system of intimidation, using the "Tascon List," which identified 2 million-plus citizens who voted to recall the president, to push people out of state jobs and refuse state benefits and services to political enemies.)

But Putin's increasingly long reach isn't limited to control of the news media and public sector workers; his influence, like that of his Soviet forbearers, naturally extends to classroom curricula. A Russian text book judged insufficiently obsequious to the regime was recalled on orders from the Kremlin, to be replaced by a new text featuring a gushing paean to Putin ( "We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin"), a Pravda-like section on the crimes of America, and a mealy-mouthed apologia for Comrade Stalin ("The most successful leader of the U.S.S.R.").

Besides nourishing an expanding personality cult of his own, Putin has actively worked to rehabilitate the Soviet past, declaring in 2005 that "the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Such Sovietophilia was detectable from the very beginning of his reign, when the newly-installed President presided over the reinstatement of a plaque at the KGB's notorious Lubyanka headquarters celebrating former Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov, architect of the brutal repression of the "Prague Spring," as an "outstanding political figure." Earlier this month, Putin, with a troupe of saturnine, medal-bedecked KGB men in tow, attended a champagne reception to posthumously award the highest state honor to George Koval, an American who passed atom bomb secrets to Stalin. Considering this ongoing reassessment of Soviet history and historiography, it's unexceptional that, according to a report from Radio Free Europe, a recent study of Russians found that "45 percent of respondents said they believed Stalin had played a largely positive role in Russia's history." In fact, Stalin was deemed "Russia's second-most successful leader since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution"—losing out only to Mr. Putin.

In Venezuela, Putin's ally Hugo Chavez seems to be mimicking not the failed Soviet project, but the failed revolution of Nicaragua's Sandinistas—though this time with the benefit of vast oil wealth. While the Venezuelan government allows the publication of opposition newspapers—in Nicaragua, this was a role filled by Jamie Chamorro and La Prensa, a newspaper that existed throughout the dictatorship but was subject to frequent harassment, censorship and closure by the junta—the press is cowed by threats of government action and the use of libel writs brought before friendly, Chavista judges.

In the case of opposition television channel RCTV, the Chavez government was more explicit, simply refusing to renew the station's license (required to operate on the public band, though it can still reach a much audience via cable and the Internet), without offering the accused an opportunity to defend itself against charges of sedition. When RCTV was ejected from the airwaves, its slot was taken over by yet another government-run propaganda channel in the mold of ViVe, a "public service" network that devoted significant airtime in the election run-up mocking opposition protestors and admonishing viewers to vote 'Si!' to the constitutional changes (ViVe can be watched live here; archived documentaries on the philosophy of Mao and Marx archived here; RCTV on government station VTV's coverage of recent student protests here).

Parallels to the Sandinista regime, unfortunately for the people of Venezuela, don't stop there. In one less-remarked upon provision, the new constitution would attempt to solidify Chavez's base by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 years-old, a tactic the Nicaraguan government successfully employed during its rigged 1984 election (Cuba too has a voting age of 16, though no elections to speak of). Chavez has also echoed the revolutionary rhetoric of Daniel Ortega, smearing any and all opponents as a spies and fifth-columnists; agents of the "Empire" and enemies of the people. So when former Minister of Defense and Chavez confidant Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel publically broke with the government, saying that the proposed changes to the constitution amounted to a soft coup d'état, his former boss unleashed his full fury, threatening those who run afoul of the revolution: "He who says he supports Chavez but votes 'no' is a traitor, a true traitor. He's against me, against the revolution and against the people." Such rhetorical thuggery is, alas, the least of the oppositions concerns; protests and gatherings are often met by armed members of local "Bolivarian Circles," state sanction gangs charged with protecting the revolution and modeled on Cuba's "Committee for the Defense of the Revolution" and Ortega's "Turbas Divinas," or "divine mobs."

Despite their obvious contempt for democratic institutions, both leaders still command a disturbing, though hardly overwhelming, level of Western support; defenders who will doubtless welcome a Chavez or Putin electoral victory and retrenchment. In the American Conservative, British writer John Laughland lauds Putin's economic record and remarks that his ideology isn't much different from your average European social democrat (This was, alas, meant as a compliment). A columnist for the Huffington Post described, somewhat clumsily, Chavez's power grab as an attempt "democratize political power to the grassroots of the majority more thoroughly than anything we have seen in this hemisphere… ever." Another Huffington Post columnist lamented that Chavez's revisions to the constitution are "falsely portrayed by many in the U.S. media as anti-democratic."

But the media have this one right. Both Chavez and Putin are attempting to reset the clock on the Cold War, and neither of them is terribly interested in promoting democratic institutions or ensuring a fair, transparent electoral process. And if recent history is any judge, come Sunday morning both Russia and Venezuela might very well be further down the path to the one party state.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.

NEXT: France's Clandestine Culture War

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  1. That 6 hour workday ought to put a nice big spike in the coffin that is the Venezuelan economy.

  2. That 6 hour workday ought to put a nice big spike in the coffin that is the Venezuelan economy

    You don’t understand. The workday doesn’t change, you just get paid for 6.

  3. You don’t understand. The workday doesn’t change, you just get paid for 6.

    That’ll put a nice big spike in the coffin that is the Venezuelan economy.

  4. I cannot wait for oil prices to go down, depriving these worthless thugs of the cash propping up their rotten economies. Too bad real humans will have to suffer as well.

  5. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths the US media will go to lie about Venezuela. Comparing a democratically elected executive to Vladimir Putin is a new low. But hey, I guess all those desperately poor brown people can’t be blamed because they just aren’t smart enough to know that American crony capitalism is good for them.

    Absolutely zero mention of the indigenous people’s councils that would be given more power should this referendum pass. Also zero mention of CIA funding and direction of the opposition. No matter how corrupt and/or powerful Chavez may be, the bottom line remains that a democratically elected strongman is better than a CIA strongman, hands down.

  6. If they choose not to heed the bullying “recommendations” of party heavies, state employees “risk losing their jobs, their accommodation or bonuses”; university students are being threatened with failing grades and expulsion.

    Why do people never understand that getting any benefit from the state requires surrendering some freedom? Get enough benefits and soon you find you have no freedom left.

    Overt authoritarians like Putin and Chavez blatantly coerce people with direct threats of loss of benefits but the same effect can be accomplished by more subtlety even in liberal-democracies. I am continually amazed by people who think of themselves as free when the government effectively controls their access to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, transportation and information. For many, it seems if you just tell them them they can f*ck whomever they please you can toss them straight into the cage and they will thank you for it.

  7. American crony capitalism

    Drink!

  8. lies,

    Comparing a democratically elected executive…

    Acquiring power by election does not make one a legitimate democratic leader. That only happens when a leader loses an election and steps down.

    People, especially desperately poor and unsophisticated people, quite often vote themselves a no frills spared trip to hell, Look at Zimbabwe.

    Absolutely zero mention of the indigenous people’s councils that would be given more power should this referendum pass.

    Ha, ha, ha, ha. Let me tell you something, Anything called “The Peoples ” is a fraud. Every authoritarian socialist regime red or black has established “Peoples” organization ostensibly to empower the lower classes. It always ends in oppression and blood shed.

    Chavez is indeed a self inflicted injury on the part of the people of Venezuela so I don’t think we have any right to intervene directly as we did during the Cold War. When the next oil bust comes all hell will break lose, Chevez will drop his democratic pretensions. and you will be there to explain why all the death and destruction is our fault.

  9. Lies, what an appropriate name! And wasn’t Putin “democratically elected”?

    Have you ever been to Venezuela, lies?

  10. “It never ceases to amaze me the lengths the US media will go to lie about Venezuela. Comparing a democratically elected executive to Vladimir Putin is a new low.”
    Lies, Well, Putin was “democratically elected” too wasn’t he? These two guys are not the worst that can be done, but they are not the best. The fact that extreme right wingers froth at Chavez does not mean there is something ideal about him for those who may cherish liberty and are willing to tame wealthy interests as well as government when it impinges on it. Chavez has some rightly troubling authoritarian tendencies behind all that power to the people rhetoric.

    As far as Russia goes, the Libertopians on this site should remember that they tried moving in a market direction rather strongly in the 1990’s and it sucked to the average person, so they find it a hard sell now. Now, of course, the faithful here will start the chanting of “but they did not REALLY try the wonderful market.” Interesting how they sound so very much like the Communists who, when faced with empirical failures of their model, chanted “but we did not REALLy try Marxism!” The fact is that under Yeltsin et al, the nation took a strong market turn and it sucked for them. And under Putin things have gotten better economically and Russia has been taken seriously again in foriegn affairs, and all that matters to the Russians. They are not so stupid as to keep choosing something that was not working…Now, I submit they would do better to liberalize slowly and in a way that works for them, and Putin also shows some dangerous leanings, but this is not simply a coup by Putin and his minions…

  11. And surely, lies, you MUST be opposed to the US returning Aristide to power in Haiti by direct military intervention, i.e. the Marines? Wonder what ever happened to that guy?

  12. “Overt authoritarians like Putin and Chavez blatantly coerce people with direct threats of loss of benefits but the same effect can be accomplished by more subtlety even in liberal-democracies.”
    This strikes me as exactly the kind of hyperventilating that pushes people like lies into people like Chavez’s camp. You want “blatant authoritarians?” Look in N. Korea. Putin and Chavez are very problemmatic, but to shade them as authoritarian dictators is hyperbole. Doubt it? Try doing the following, which you can do in Russia or Venezula, in N. Korea:

    1. Go visit an opposition party headquarters
    2. Go buy an opposition newspaper
    3. Get a travel visa
    etc.

  13. I’m not trying to defend Chavez or Putin. They’re largely indefensible to me. But the black and white thinking is pretty useless.

  14. Mr. Nice Guy,

    I wasn’t comparing Putin et al to North Korea I was pointing out that the basic mechanism of withholding benefits and privileges can be used in all liberal-democracies to control people.

    Look at the use of the disposition of public jobs and contracts in the major cities of the northeast during the period circa 1920-1960. An iron triangle of unions, democratic party machines and the mob controlled millions by giving with one hand and taking with the other. Political organization down to the level of block captains meant that individuals who didn’t toe the line lost their jobs, houses and sometimes got their legs broke.

    Government benefits, even things like targeted tax breaks, come with dangerous strings. The actions of Putin and Chavez merely bring that reality into a sharp focus.

  15. 4. or using a cellphone.

    Still, Venezuela has more of a history and tradition of democracy than Korea ever had, or Russia for that matter. It is really sad to see the decline of Venezuela in the past nine years.

  16. George Bush was elected in an election that in all likelihood was more free and fair than the ones where Chavez or Putin won.

    Does that make the increased powers that Bush has claimed legitimate? Uh, no.

  17. Again, the means justify the ends to the whackalefties. “Democratically elected” becomes a carte blanche to a lot of them.

  18. This guy “lies” can’t be for real… so I won’t even go there.
    What is distressing is how Chavez claims he’s giving power back to the people by establishing Consejos Comunales (community counsils). Do you know HOW these are set up? WHO gets to be on this council? Let me tell you, counsil member are not elected. They are hand-picked by whoever the government favors (as they say here “el que jala mas bolas”, that means “whoever kisses more ass”).
    To give you an idea, it would be your not-so-friendly neighborhood committee deciding everything regarding you and your community. To make matters worse, these “community counsils” are funded by the government (Nope. No chance for corruption here). These counsils decide where and who shall spend the community’s money.
    Have a pot hole in the street in front of your house? There’s a busted street light in front of your building (putting your personal safety at risk)? Better hope the Counsil members like you PERSONALLY and dont think you are against the government.
    I have actually seen people get into fist fights over getting into these counsils.

  19. Yes, these are the “indigenous people’s councils” in lies amazing fantasy. Like there are lots of Arawak Indians living out in the Venezuelan countryside living in tipis or something, who just want to have their own “councils”.

  20. You mean, you mean, that a council member doesn’t even have to be an indigenous person?

  21. Well then, rana, I wish you the best, but it sounds like it is already more soviet there than I thought.

  22. Marcvs,
    Thanks. It is not good. It is not horrible either (i.e. like North Korea or Cuba… yet). But Venezuela has certainly headed in the wrong direction. Yesterday’s opposition march in Caracas had a strong turnout (far greater than pro-Chavez march today- so it seems)… But it is Caracas- Chavez has great support in smaller cities throughout the country.

    Atrevete, if Im not mistaken, Chavez’s idea of “community councils” comes from communist Cuba, from his buddy Fidel. I don’t think they have too many Taino indians left in Cuba though 😉 but there are indigenous indians in the Venezuelan Amazons- however, Im sure they already have set up their tribe leaders.

  23. If Chavez is just misunderstood, as the Huffington Post seems to imply. Would the HP be willing to move operations to Caracas?

  24. For the six hour workday, presumably. And the extra half hour of sunshine, great for the people’s health.

  25. Shannon Love,

    Chavez’s predecessor lost the election and stepped down. Are you actually saying that George Bush isn’t a democratically elected leader, or did you phrase that poorly?

    As for the “election” of Putin, the elections and campaigns in Russia are closer to those in Cuba than to Venezuela. Choreographed frauds in conditions of state violence. As opposed to Venesuela, where every election Hugo Chavez ever won has been certified as free and fair by international election monitoring groups.

    I hope the referendum goes goes in flames, but even more important, I hope that Venezuela continues to have free and fair elections. If an election turns out badly, the results can be undone in the next election. But if real elections come to an end, that’s the ballgame.

  26. The only thing “rigged” about the 1984 elections in Nicaragua were the bombs the contras placed in polling places, in their efforts to prevent people from voting in the election they knew they were going to lose so badly.

    Neonconservatives never seem to get it through their heads that, honest to God, people don’t like foreigners who start wars in their country and support those who fight against them.

  27. I dont know joe. You and I will never agree that elections, well make that the last presidential election in Venezuela, was “free and fair”. If Putin has taken over many media outlets (Chavez certainly has) and forces government workers to attend pro-government rallies and vote for him at the threat of losing their jobs or pensions (Chavez pretty much openly does this, its no secret), persecutes people who oppose him (Chavez guilty as well- “la lista de Tascon”)… I dont know, sounds like they are quite alike.
    Although Im sure Chavez is far more charismatic than Putin, at least I will give him that.

  28. The last presidential election had dead people voting, e.g. a guy who, according to his id number, was 170 years old; had people vote twice with fake ids at different voting centers; had Chavista thugs intimidate and threat opposition voters at rural voting centers; had military police close down 3-lane highways into 1-lane to slow down people to get to voting centers; had voting centers in predominantely opposition areas open late and close early; had many voter’s assigned voting centers changed, at the last minute, to another city far away (this was done to people who had voted to revoke Chavez- “la lista de Tascon”); had government workers forced to vote in Chavez’s favor at the threat of losing their jobs.
    Sounds “fair” to you?

  29. rana,

    There are differneces in degree, but also in kind. Putin is assassinating journalists and opposition leaders. What you’re describing sounds an awful lot like most cities in America circa 1890 – certainly not ideal, but something that can built on as long as the democratic system stays solid.

    Believe me, I’m not under the impression that your country has a model electoral system right now! But there is an open plebescite for constitutional amendments (I wish we had those), top political figures including Chavez allies are advocating for its defeat, and a majority of people tell pollsters they are voting no. None of those things happen in Russia anymore.

  30. The last presidential election had dead people voting

    rana, I sympathize with you, but I have to giggle at this point. Many US and Canadian politicians owed their election wins to the “graveyard vote”.

    Seriously, however, I see both Venezuela and Russia as screwed no matter what happens. As the old joke goes “In the West, when the government is defeated in an election, the people dissolve the government and elect a new one. In Russia, when the government is defeated in an election, the government dissolves the people and elects a new one.”

    For Venezuela in particular, I can see Chavez using oil wealth to build his popularity and his power. While the oil wealth lasts, he will be relatively benign.

    When it runs out – due either to incompetence or a fall in oil prices – he will no longer be able to buy popularity. Then the regime will turn savage.

    I realize you probably love your country, but I’d suggest you get out now.

  31. But joe, what’s at stake is the very existence of the democratic system.

  32. rana, I sympathize with you, but I have to giggle at this point. Many US and Canadian politicians owed their election wins to the “graveyard vote”.

    Yeah, to be fair the “graveyard vote” over here is hardly an invention of Chavizmo either.

    But the system is so obviously rigged in favor of the government (even if the voting machines themselves aren’t, which is at least debatable)…

  33. But there is an open plebescite for constitutional amendments (I wish we had those),

    I don’t. Democrcy is wonderful but it is best when damped. You see it in the states that amend their constitution by majority vote. All sorts of bad law get’s enshrined that way.

    That’s my take on it anyway.

  34. From a Vz. blogspot:

    “Anyone voting “SI” for the Constitutional Referedum, hold up a bottle of milk”.

  35. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths the US media will go to lie about Venezuela.

    Yeah, that right-wing National Public Radio is amazing.

  36. This is what you have to worry about we have only 50 years at current rates of US et al consumption
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,750783,00.html#article_continue
    We have to focus not on old patterns of hatred Putin and Chavez are threatened and strengthened by the old way of doing things but we are all in the same boat we had to make big adjustments and we have to stop demonisation it is a genetic throwback.
    Check out non-mainstream media like commondreams.org

  37. The date of the Dr. Allende’s death on Sept. 11, 1973 this came about through CIA and US interference and ushered in Pinochet thanlks guys. This was Chile’s 911 more than 3000 people were killed in Pinochet’s rule http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6167237.stm
    could 911 be blowback.

  38. Putin’s elections are much more fair than Yeltsain’s. The drop in Putin’s popularity is more likely due to the fact that he made the day of Yeltsin’s death a day of mourning rather than a day of celebration

  39. “I cannot wait for oil prices to go down, depriving these worthless thugs of the cash propping up their rotten economies. Too bad real humans will have to suffer as well.”

    Bakedpenguin,

    Why do you hate America so much?

  40. “It is really sad to see the decline of Venezuela in the past nine years.”

    Sorry to break this to you, but the decline started before the Chavez years. It’s just that those who suffered the brunt of that decline weren’t being listened to, at all. Nobody gave a fuck.

    It would be really nice if people here didn’t suddenly spring to attention only after clowns like Chavez take the stage.

  41. It would be really nice if people didn’t draw their conclusions about Venezuela from screeds written by dorky gringoes.

    Anyone who has been to Venezuela, before and after Chavez, can SEE the decline.

  42. It is funny to see the First World’s lefties trying to claim they know more about our country that we do, heh?

  43. One reason Putin has been so strong in Russia is–face it–Russia historically has never had a system that didn’t have a strongman at the top. The Bolsheviks turned the whole place upside down but still ended up with one strong guy at the top. So what’s new?

    The idealism of people to assume that “democracy is a natural attribute of the people” always amuses me. Historians know better.

    And yes, Russians tried “demokratia” and weren’t too happy with the economic results, so is it any surprise that they’ve gone back to the traditional system they feel comfortable with? I predict that if Putin manages to deliver the economic goods, Russians will be very happy to keep him in power.

    Talking about “freedom” doesn’t sound that great to someone who’s near-starving and having to worry constantly about being robbed/murdered. He’s much more likely to follow any system that can fill his belly and keep him protected–be it under warlords, a strongman, the Taliban, or the Mafia.

    Yet another reason why “anarcho-libertarianism” will never work.

  44. I wonder how long it will be before sycophantic assholes like joe claim it’s all democratic because “elections” are involved. If anyone is stupid enough at this point to believe the votes in Venezuala are legitimate, they shoud be shot for being so damn stupid.

  45. “The date of the Dr. Allende’s death on Sept. 11, 1973 this came about through CIA and US interference and ushered in Pinochet thanlks guys. This was Chile’s 911 more than 3000 people were killed in Pinochet’s rule http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6167237.stm
    could 911 be blowback”

    Please explain to me what the fuck this has to do with anything now. How typical. Someone points out the obvious, that Chavez is a murderous socialist thug, and some stupid asshole brings up something totally unrelated that occured thirty four years ago.
    As for that being Chile’s 9-11, try again asshole. Nothing Pinochet did was even fucking illegal. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you should do a little research.

  46. To clarify, nothing that Pinochet did to assume power was a violation of Chile’s constitution. What he may or may not done afterwards is different.

  47. On Mr.Moynihan’s Venezuelan…….

    The article was so trashy that may be no comment would have been more appropriate, however a new low was achieved in check-book journalism.

    I did not realize that the REASON HAS BEEN BOUGHT by THE NEWS INTERNATIONAL.

    We learn every day.

    I would like to make a suggestion to the editor namely that such articles on important subject as this should be rigorously checked before its publication.

    Thank you.

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