According to the reports we get in the U.S., Hugo Chavez has been busily stacking the deck in a variety of ways to rig future Venezuelan elections in favor of his perpetual strongman rule. Over the past decade, many here who'd been willing to give Chavez and his "Bolivarian Socialist" movement some benefit of the doubt had written him off as a virtual dictator or caudillo in the unhappy Latin American tradition. An objective analysis of his measures would probably confirm that he's been trying to make it easier for his party to win. Apparently, however, Chavez hasn't done all he could to cinch things for himself.
The latest reports from Venezuela, based on the first official election returns, indicate that Chavez's party has retained a majority but lost seats in the country's legislature. Most importantly, Chavez has apparently fallen below the two-thirds threshold he requires in order to appoint judges and rule by temporary decrees. In theory, this puts a check on his ability to make himself into the dictator many outsiders assume that he already is. The results were reportedly influenced by voter dissatisfaction with a declining economy and by the willingness of opposition parties to coalesce under conditions where a lesser-evil approach might be justified. Looking back, it may be possible to say that the opposition preferred to accuse Chavez of cheating in the past in order to cover up their own irresponsible factionalism or electoral incompetence. I don't mean to deny that Chavez has ever cheated -- I'd be extremely surprised if he didn't -- but I would suggest that the menace he represents to freedom in Venezuela may be exaggerated, if not as grossly exaggerated as the menace Barack Obama purportedly represents to freedom in the United States in the eyes of Republicans and Tea Partiers. I don't doubt that Chavez thinks of himself as an indispensable man, but the early election results indicate, at the least, that there's a line -- let's call it the Iranian line -- that he hasn't yet crossed. He might cross that line when his own job is at stake again in 2012, but if the early reports hold up and he doesn't make a move to overturn or ignore the results, Chavez -- whatever you think of his policies or his personality -- may be entitled to a little more benefit of the doubt again.