Hugo Chávez: An elected autocrat

He kept power by bullying those who dissented – and his departure leaves a dangerous vacuum.

Hugo Chavez salutes during a military parade
Hugo Chavez salutes during a military parade to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his failed coup attempt, on 4 February 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

This piece was originally published as part of a cover package in the New Statesman magazine, alongside an article by Richard Gott entitled "Man against the world".

It was visiting day at Los Teques women’s jail, a jumble of concrete ringed by guards on a hill overlooking Caracas, and the inmates were dolled up, tight jeans, heels, lipstick, bangles, to receive their menfolk and children. All lounged in the courtyard, soaking up sun, chatting and snacking.

All save one. Maria Lourdes Afiuni’s cell door was open but she stayed inside, perched on her bunk, smoking. Pale and pasty, she wore baggy jeans, a shapeless sweater, trainers and no make-up.

A portrait of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon, a gift from a friend, adorned the wall. The dragon bore a distinct resemblance to Hugo Chávez. Afiuni smiled. The president had already sentenced her; what did she have to lose?

It was January 2011 and I had come to interview Venezuela’s best-known prisoner. Afiuni was a judge who had come to national attention 13 months earlier by releasing a highprofile banker accused of fraud.

Chávez erupted. He went on television to accuse Afiuni of having been bribed, of being a bandit, and said in earlier times she would have been shot. “We have to give this judge and the people who did this the maximum sentence . . . 30 years in prison in the name of the dignity of the country!”

A single mother in her forties, Afiuni had cancer. Inmates attacked her and threatened to “drink her blood”. An international campaign for her release was launched but on this bright January day she remained incarcerated and hunched in her cell, afraid to mix with the other inmates. “I’m here as the president’s prisoner,” she said.

There was no disputing that. Guilty or not – Afiuni vehemently protested that she was innocent – there was no chance of a free trial after Chávez’s intervention. Noam Chomsky led the international outcry, yet her fellow judges stayed silent, too intimidated to join in. “Cowards and accomplices,” she said.

Afiuni’s plight was not typical of Hugo Chávez’s rule. There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror. But when it suited him he bullied the courts into jailing those who challenged or angered him.

He was neither a tyrant nor a democratic liberator but a hybrid, an elected autocrat, and the nuances of that category often escaped his friends and critics abroad.

He relied on the ballot box for legitimacy while concentrating power and eroding freedoms, shunting Venezuela into a twilight zone where you could do what you wanted – until the president said you couldn’t.

Chávez praised Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi as brothers but restrained the bloodshed, settling for selective intimidation and thuggery. Repression was usually a last resort – when oil revenues, charisma and political skill were not enough for him to get his way.

His domestic opponents faced mounting threats. The first weapon was humiliation. Intelligence agents passed recordings of intercepted calls to a chavista television show, The Razorblade, which would gleefully spin and broadcast them, to an accompaniment of animal noises.

The second weapon was disqualification from running for office. Leopoldo López, a potential pre - sidential rival descended from Simón Bolívar’s sister, was accused of corruption, tangled in legal knots and sidelined.

The third was emasculation. Antonio Ledezma was elected the metropolitan mayor of Caracas but became irrelevant. A red-shirted mob occupied the city hall, with police complicity, and Chávez transferred the mayor’s powers to a newly created city authority run by an apparatchik.

Those who posed more serious threats, or who just got under the president’s skin, faced jail, usually charged with corruption. Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez in the 2006 presidential election, and lost badly, fled to Peru. Raúl Baduel, a defence minister who turned against the president, was jailed for eight years.

Union leaders who agitated too hard for workers’ rights, such as Rubén González, were jailed for unlawful assembly. Political prisoners, to use that loaded term, seldom numbered more than a dozen at any one time. A small number that sent a loud message: Chávez owned the courts.

In the case of Afiuni there was not even any pretence about separation of powers: the president publicly ordered her jailing. This proved too much even for Chomsky, otherwise a supporter of Chávez. His intervention is one reason Afiuni was granted house arrest, where she remains today.

Craven judges gave a threadbare legal cover to punishing foes, expropriating property and violating the constitution. The chavista militias that rode around town on motorbikes lobbing tear gas at opposition targets were a circus sideshow. Judges were the real fist. Hardly a Stalinist dystopia, but not the democratic New Jerusalem Chávez’s propagandists proclaimed.

The intimidation was selective. As the Guardian’s correspondent in Caracas for six years, I never had a problem with visas, accreditation or invitations to official events. The local media, however, were squeezed. Dozens of private radio and television stations lost their licences, encouraging the rest to self-censor. The exception was Globovisión, a Fox-like cable TV channel that fulminated against Chávez.

In 2002, Globovisión and other private channels shamefully fuelled a US-backed coup that briefly ousted Chávez. Their comeuppance was merited. Yet Chávez went too far, creating a sycophantic state media empire and cowing most, though not all, private media. This enabled his personality cult and his transformation from “el presidente” to “el comandante”, a military term his followers used to stress obedience. During his marathon broadcasts, ministers would compete during fleeting cameos (it was unwise to divert the limelight too long) to show loyalty and submission.

He cemented his rule by rewarding allies. Opportunists, notably senior military officers and the tycoons known as “boligarchs”, got rich manipulating government contracts. Civilian ideologues and Cuba got power and influence. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people got jobs in a bloated bureaucracy. And millions of the poor got social services, scholarships and handouts, notably fridges, tumble dryers and washing machines. Those who voted against him were often barred from government jobs and benefits.

Other Latin American governments knew of the abuses, that elections were free though not fair, but stayed silent. Venezuela’s hollowed economy required huge imports from its neighbours to keep shelves stocked. Why risk the bonanza? Plus Chávez offered discounted oil, called time on Yankee meddling and told the IMF to stuff itself.

As the comandante ails in a Cuban clinic, Venezuela’s one-man rule totters without the man. In the short term, that creates a dangerous vacuum. Chávez hovers like Banquo’s ghost while his appointed heir, Vice- President Nicolás Maduro, does an awkward tango with Diosdado Cabello, head of a rival chavista faction. Urgent decisions loom, not least a currency devaluation, but no one dares take them.

There are many ifs. If Chávez dies soon, expect a huge funeral and a swift election. If Maduro wins he will struggle to keep the disparate ruling coalition united and fix the warping economy. Chávez’s political genius was the revolution’s glue. Maduro is no genius and he relies on Cuban mentors, not a good augury for healthy democracy.

If the opposition stays united and wins the election it will face entrenched chavista bureaucrats, mayors and governors. Some will seek to perpetuate their movement the way the Perónists did in Argentina. Others will saltar la talanquera, a Venezuelan tradition of jumping the fence to accommodate new rulers. If oil prices stay high the transition will have a cushion.

The longer-term challenge will be the economy and rebuilding institutions – ministries, the judiciary, the armed forces, local government – which have been gutted and have become hyper-politicised. It will be messy and painful. At such times Venezuela usually clamours for a strong leader who promises short cuts. Too often, it finds one.

Rory Carroll was based in Caracas as the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent from 2006 to 2012. His book on Chávez, “Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez”, will be published by Canongate in March