How Hugo Chavez is gaining influence in Latin America

The modern strongman’s playbook is as brazen as it is sophisticated. Political opponents gaining ground? Outflank them by calling a national referendum, grease the system with plenty of government cash, and claim a popular mandate for emasculating congress and tightening the screws on society. Annoyed by pesky critics in the fourth estate? Never mind the carping in the elite print media and cable channels; just keep the mass media on message—pump money into state-run radio and television and decline to renew independent broadcasters’ licenses. Inflation spinning out of control? Freeze prices, and when milk and eggs go missing from the supermarket shelves, blame scofflaw capitalists. It’s all about what Dobson calls “the art of conceding political space in order to maintain it.”

The new authoritarians catch on fast. Since coming to power in 1999, Chávez has become a master at gaming democracy. Again and again he has used government largesse to buy popular support in lopsided national referendums and elections, taking the results as an open license to bully his critics, stack the courts, and assume extraordinary powers with the help of his partners in the legislature. And while he shreds his country’s laws and tramples civil liberties, what do his fellow Latin American leaders do? They look the other way, as when he redrew Venezuela’s voting districts to favor Chávista candidates in 2010’s parliamentary elections. The response has been the same where Chávez’s Bolivarian disciples have manhandled the press and the legislatures, intimidated dissenters, and manipulated elections in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to conspicuous silence in the hemisphere.