Johann Hari: Chavez must avoid the trap of dictatorship

Venezuela's leader has transformed his country for the better. But he can't afford to feed his enemies' prejudices
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Hugo Chavez touches down in London this week, to a blaze of slander and lies about his record so far. The Venezuelan President will be dubbed "a military dictator", a "caudillo", a "murderer" and worse. Ah well – at least on this trip Elizabeth Windsor is unlikely to tell him to "shut up", as the Spanish king did during a summit in Chile last week.

So before the misrepresentations begin, let's establish some facts. Before Chavez was elected president in 1998, the country's oil wealth was used exclusively to enrich a tiny white-skinned elite. The forgotten, darker-skinned majority were left to fester in barrios made of mud and rusting tin in the high hills that ring Venezuela's cities. They could only peer down at a marble-white world they would never enter, except as cleaners and skivvies.

Chavez ran for office promising to spend the petro-dollars on them – and he kept his promise. In 2003, two distinguished consulting firms conducted the most detailed study of economic change under Chavez in Venezuela. The results were astonishing. The poorest half of the country has seen their incomes soar by 130 per cent after inflation. Access to clean water is up from 79 per cent to 91 per cent. Access to medical care is at unprecedented levels. In 1998, there were 1,628 primary care doctors in the country. Today, there are 19,571 – an increase by a factor of 10.

I have seen the human stories that lie behind these sterile-sounding statistics. Last year, in the collapsing old barrios, I met women who had been drinking stale water out of barrels all their lives, and now giggled with glee to have fresh running water in their homes. I went to clean, new clinics where tens of thousands of poor people were seeing a doctor for the first time. I spoke to an old man who had been blind for 20 years. He had been given a cataract operation for free – and now he could see again. The oil wealth was suddenly being used to lift up these people, rather than keep them down – just as they demanded at the ballot box.

That's why Venezuelans think their country has become more democratic under Chavez. According to Latinobarometro, the gold standard for Latin American opinion polling, some 32 per cent of people felt satisfied with their democratic process in 1998. Today, it is 58 per cent – more than 20 points ahead of the Latin American average.

But is there a danger Chavez will play into the hands of his critics, and become dictatorial after all? This suggestion will intensify over the next month, as we approach 2 December – the date on which Venezuelans vote on his new proposals to amend the constitution. There are dozens of clauses: the working week will be shortened to 36 hours, extremely popular in a country where most work is back-breaking and tedious.

There will be legal guarantees that private homes can never be expropriated by the government. Much more power will be devolved to elected local councils. But the most controversial clause is an end to the two-term limits on the presidency. This means that Chavez will be able to run again and again for the presidency, for as long as the people want him. There are cries that this will make him a dictator – but using this logic, Britain, France and Germany are dictatorships too.

So why the persistent claims that Chavez is a strongman? There are many bogus reasons to say this – and a few real reasons to worry. Chavez is in a difficult position for any leader in a democracy: his country contains a vociferously, violently anti-democratic minority who are determined to overturn the will of the majority. Venezuela's white elite have been astonished by their sudden loss of power and privilege. They were accustomed to seeing the country's petro-wealth as their private preserve. They are supported by the US government, who are appalled that their corporations suddenly have been asked by Chavez to pay their fair share – and by his attempts to spread this model abroad. From the moment Chavez was elected, they have fought to topple him.

First, they tried an economic siege: the Venezuelan rich went on strike. They locked the workers out of their factories and firms in an attempt to bring the country's economy crashing down. It failed. So next they tried a recall referendum, gathering millions of signatures to rerun the election. Chavez prevailed again, with a bigger majority.

Then came their most dramatic move. In April 2002, they seized the Presidential Palace and kidnapped Chavez. Backed by the Bush administration, they immediately dissolved the parliament, the constitution, and the supreme court, and declared martial law. But the Venezuelan poor refused to watch their democracy die. They came out on to the streets in their millions – risking being gunned down – to demand Chavez's return. The newspapers and TV channels refused to cover this, because their owners helped plan the coup. But the soldiers holding Chavez felt ashamed, and released him.

What do you do in a democracy when the owners of a free press militate to overthrow the democratic process itself? It's a genuinely difficult question, and I don't know the answer. I do know that if it happened in Britain – if Gordon Brown was kidnapped by a foreign-backed minority determined to end democracy, and ITV and Channel 4 helped plan it – we would react in a much more stringent way than Chavez. He waited two years to deny a terrestrial licence to just one of the channels that backed the coup. Almost none of the coup plotters has been jailed. The newspapers are still free to be violently against Chavez, as they are almost all the time.

And yet ... and yet ... being kidnapped and nearly killed with the support of the US government has indeed had a radicalising influence on Chavez. At his best, Chavez cites social democratic thinkers like J K Galbraith. At his worst, he praises communists like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. When I met up with Chavez last year, I was alarmed when he told me: "I don't think in Cuba there is a lack of freedom of speech. There is no repression in Cuba ... Is it true that by electing a president or prime minister every five years you have democracy? Is it because you have press and TV channels that you have freedom of speech?"

It wasn't a rousing defence of liberal freedoms. Yet there has been only one hint so far that he could act on these thoughts: last year, he asked the parliament to vote to allow him to rule by decree on a dozen issues, for 18 months. These Castroite instincts plainly struggle within his chest against much more impressive ones.

Up to now, Chavez has offered a shimmering model of pro-poor democratic development, at the tip of the most unequal continent on earth. It would be a tragedy if – after extending real freedom, and saving hundreds of thousands of lives among the poor – Chavez did turn into the dictator that his enemies have painted him as.