To understand that "adaptation of dictatorship to new realities" let's start by remembering what are the core concepts of democracy and, as a consequence, what trumps a democracy and can thus represent the basic tools to sustain a dictatorship.
A democracy cannot be defined alone by elections, even if those are free and fair. In a complex, multiethnic, multicultural world, and dare I invent a word, multieconomical, we need to look beyond what were the democratic aspirations of the XIX century: right of vote for all, equal justice for all and for more forward looking societies like the US, equal opportunities for all. The aspirations of the XIX century and the birth of the welfare state have led to our current system where democracy also includes protection for minorities, guarantees that a political minority can become a political majority, rule of law though independent institutions implying stricter separation of powers. Not to enter into human rights which have expanded considerably from those of the XIX century which were basically limited to habeas corpus and freedoms of the press and beliefs.
This restructuring of democracy tenets have also implied the redefinition of power. All through the XXth century democracy has had to contend with that side of human nature that wishes to control everything. This made democracy to be seen for some as weak and incompetent creating a wish for a substantial chunk of the society that wants clear and direct answers. The enemy of democracy has thus been the will of small groups who invented crass appeal to the populace, or populism, to reach power. In their more extreme forms these people went easily over to fascism or communism, which are the negative picture of the democratic aspiration, totalitarianism.
Unfortunately at this vantage point it seems that the trend is for a victory of populism in its milder forms over sensible government though we should not give up quite yet. This has been made easier because mass media cannot resit to dabble in political influence, in all countries of the world. Exciting the masses is rather easy and a few good soundbites can influence an election more than electoral homework. But yet these media and international realities make an outright grab to power more difficult than it was. Absolute control is today nearly impossible unless it was established in the last century. Thus ambitious groups and individuals had to reshape their goals.
The only thing that, with some ease, can be more or less thoroughly controlled today is the income of the country. In an authoritarian regime this is a must because the state income is used by those in powers to play off one side of the country against the other one. Other forms of control then can follow. In a welfare state age and crass consumption sponsored by all types of media living off advertising, the power of the purse is more effective than the power of the weapons. True, the other tool of dictatorships, giving only to a few powers for abuse over their brethren still exists but runs into lots of problems in an age of human rights, no matter how many psychopaths a regime can draw. Disposable bribe money works better, violent repression is a last recourse. Although preparations for repression are made as diligently as they used to be made last century.
The trick for those craving absolute power is on how to reach absolute control over the state financial resources. The Venezuelan model is the first success story though one difficult to emulate unless you have a spigot of money like the one that exists underground in Venezuela. The model was implemented in stages so that not that many people objected to it at any given time, outside of the 2002 scare.
First, you sell the empty promise of a new constitution without describing what you will put in it. As such people project in a new Constitution any of their phantasms or needs to be fulfilled. In April 1999 only 10% voted NO to elect a constitutional assembly. Then, with the new constitution as an excuse you change the institutions of the state or at the very least exchange the people holding them for your cronies. This was strategically done in December 1999 when the transition commission between the two constitutions overextended its reach in removing all the members of the judicial system it did not like.
Once the judicial power has lost its independence it is just a matter of time in taking control of the rest of the state. This was done by 2004 when the opposition was left with a few town halls and two state houses. Then it becomes easy to manipulate financial arrangements to make sure only the regime can drain the bulk of resources and distribute them at will. Once this is achieved the regime is on its way to become an "electoral" dictatorship. It takes about half a decade to create a dependent population that is too afraid to vote against the regime least it risks to lose what is seen as its lone livelihood. This was achieved by 2006 when the charisma of the leader and the dependency on state giveaway programs ensured a solid electoral victory and the beginning of the other measures more in agreement with a traditional dictatorship, like restricting the freedom of expression, or using corruption to gain the willingness of supporters to start harassing opposition people, be them politicians or mere civilians that refuse to accept the new regime.
Today, certainly, we can access Internet, we can travel outside of the country at will but with significant difficulty, we can talk freely among friends to trash the regime, we can still get significant news in some newspapers. But that is pretty much it. For the rest we are in a dictatorship, a bona fide one even though the above hides it for the casual observer.
Let's list a few of the restrictions we suffer that do look like those of a more traditional dictatorship.
- As of this week there is basically nothing critical of the regime on TV. And on radio only in some cities. Newspapers and media in general practice a significant amount of self censorship and some news only appear in the Internet. Yes, you can still find criticism but now you must work for it, the masses that satisfy themselves on TV do not get much.
- Nobody remembers the last time the state lost a case in the High Court of Venezuela. Suing the state is a waste of time and money unless you need to do so before you can be allowed to reach for international help. Also, winning a case in court against a friend of the regime is an uphill and very expensive battle. Expensive because in the end the winner of the trial is the one that bribes the highest.
- Your property is not your property anymore. Once the state decides to expropriate you you have no recourse, your compensation is dictated by the state, not by an independent third party. And that compensation will be payed by the state whenever it pleases it.
- You cannot use your property at will. Some items now can be sold or rented only after the state consents, after deciding on the price. Your access to foreign currency is severely restricted, and only if you travel.
- You cannot manage your business as you see fit. Not only heavy regulations make it difficult to work but they stimulate extortion from abusive state inspectors. Worse, you cannot let the market decide your selling prices; and in increasing cases you cannot sell it where you want to whom you want even at fixed prices.
- For those who must deal regularly with the authorities, roughly half of the time the person that you need to reach, the one with real authority in charge, is military personnel. A large amount of governors and ministers come from the army.
- Personality cult is for all to see. Be it the one for Chavez still going on, but there is also an incipient propaganda for Maduro.
- Human and civil rights are trampled for some groups. There are political prisoners, a few but mistreated notoriously to set an example. The elected opposition representatives in Parliament are beaten up and insulted as a matter of fact.
- Corruption is eating up the country. You need to pay something for almost anything important you need to get done. Obtaining loans from state banks, any business with the state, has a a fixed percentile rate of the deal to be given to the one who signs it. In cash, no trail.
- Political segregation is the norm since the Tascon list was set in 2004. Many services now only reach followers of the regime, though badly. Obtaining a public job, a subsidized housing, a scholarship, is obtained only after pledging allegiance to the regime.
- And to close a list that can still go on, elections are neither free nor fair anymore. There is clear electoral fraud patterns that are now in the public domain. It starts with the extreme unfairness of an election where the opposition is not allowed to finance itself or communicate its program against a regime that uses all the resources of the state and the media to promote its cause and blackmail voters. And it ends with the dead voting and the end of secret voting.
All of these items taken separately could make the case for a mere authoritarian regime. Taken together they surely indicate a dictatorship.
All of what I wrote above is documented in hundreds of posts that have been forming this blog since 2003. The path toward dictatorship was undertaken in 2004 with the apartheid political list by representative Tascon which created a class of sub-citizens, not to say traitors. In 2007 the regime suffered a setback, the last election where the opposition was still able to carry its message with some effectiveness. In 2010 the first massive electoral fraud was perpetrated, including an obscene gerrymandering that left an opposition with a majority of the vote with barely a little bit more than a third of legislative seats. Personally it was in 2010 when I started calling the regime a dictatorship. Final confirmation came, for those who still pretend otherwise, in the legal maneuvering required to violate the 1999 constitution and ensure that Maduro would be the heir of Chavez. Maduro is an illegitimate president that got its official mandate after a fraudulent election that the regime refused to audit, of course. The paradox is that Maduro is the front dictator of the country but he is not the one truly in charge. The real dictators are elsewhere to be found. But that is another story.
I would be remiss if I were not to mention the Venezuelan model elsewhere. The one that comes closest to the Venezuelan model is the Russia of Putin although they certainly were able to come up with the same considerations that drove chavismo to do the deed, under Cuban direction. Though Putin has been more careful at keeping appearances, so far. But the model is the same in that the regime bases its success on the spigot of cash it controls. Just as the US has financed Chavez, Europe has financed Putin.
Of the other countries that have tried to follow a Venezuelan model, only Ecuador has a small spigot of cash. If it has not become a dictator ship it is because Correa has been a better manager of the economy and has accepted that the US dollar remains the Ecuador currency. The other imitators, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua are sui generis in their own with much lesser promising options if the Venezuelan cash were to stop sustaining their political corruption system. But there are other politicians that are dreaming of an improved Venezuelan system that are in the wings, in Chile, Peru, Honduras, etc....