There´s been lots of press coverage of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, since Tuesday, and the funeral today, and most of it fairly negative. It´s not terribly surprising since he tried to alleviate poverty and pursue an independent foreign policy. But I´m not going to defend him or his regime except in one respect. Chavez wasn´t a dictator, as he´s commonly referred to. In fact he deserves some credit for scrupulous adherence to basic democratic principles.
What impressed me was the events around Venezuela´s 2009 referendum on constitutional reform. Chavez wanted it, and once Venezuelans narrowly rejected it, the issue was dropped. Abiding by an unwelcome decision of the public is not dictatorial, it´s democratic.
The reason why this setting aside an agenda for constitutional reform deserves attention is that other nations, never accused of being ruled by dictators, don´t have referendums, and don´t have to abide by the results. Instead they hold ¨never-end-ems¨ where a government that doesn`t get the ´yes´ answer it hopes for, puts money into a yes vote publicity campaign, and goes to the polls again holding another referendum on the same issue, perhaps with slight adjustments. I´m thinking about Denmark, Ireland and Iceland, though I´m sure there are others.
Maybe that´s not dictatorship or democracy. Maybe it´s liberal democracy, where the power of the public is checked and balanced by the power of the government.We never hear Chavez criticized for being too much of a democrat. It doesn´t have the same ring as dictator. But I suspect it was Chavez´s democratic tendencies that earned him the dislike of his critics.