Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist president, surprised precisely no one last week when he coyly gave his supporters "permission" to petition for a referendum to abolish presidential term limits. It didn't exactly come as a shock: Chavez has never really hidden his determination to exit the presidential palace horizontally.
This indefinite re-election proposal is actually a bit of a mulligan for Chavez. A year ago, Venezuelans narrowly rejected the idea in a referendum, setting a theoretical end-date for the Chavez era in January, 2013. By then, the man will have been president for 14 years: not nearly long enough to crush capitalism and save humanity, apparently.
Will Venezuelans vote the way they're told the second time around? It's not at all clear. Chavez remains genuinely popular: his folksy charm and generous social spending initiatives have earned him a him deep reservoir of good will among a broad swathe of Venezuelan society.
But Venezuelans' attitudes towards our leader are more nuanced than is typically realized. Chavismo is more a continuum than a monolith, ranging from a broad center that likes the guy personally even if they're not so crazy about his ideology all the way to a hard core of socialist ideologues who hit the kool-aid pretty hard.
That range shows up clearly in polling. In a recent survey, Datanalisis, a local pollster, found that 58% of Venezuelans like Chavez, but only 31% express confidence in his ability to solve the country's problems. Majorities dislike his endless televised rants, question key parts of his socialist ideology, reject the Cuban model of society and criticize his government's performance on all kinds of bread-and-butter issues...but they still like the man personally! What the data show is something Chavez himself has never quite grasped: that most Venezuelans like him despite his hyper-radical ideology, not because of it.
Who are these elusive moderates? They're pocket-book voters, working class folks who appreciate the way Chavez has re-oriented the government's priorities and centered them on the problems of the poor. They know for sure that they prefer his brand of leadership, warts and all, to the kind of catatonic gerontokleptocracy that preceded it. But ask them if they want this enormously volatile and endlessly pugnacious leader to, potentially, run the country for life, and a lot of them get a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
Chavez's electoral fortunes have always hinged on his standing with these folks. If he lost the 2007 referendum on lifting term-limits, it's because his moderate supporters largely sat out a vote they saw as being more about solving his problems than theirs.
So Chavez needs them, but weirdly, he talks to their concerns less and less these days. Instead, he's devoting ever more of his time to the kind of superfly TNT rhetoric that made him famous worldwide, but that only the kool-aid brigade really goes for back home.
Here I'm forced to say a few words about Chavez's rhetoric, because nothing in most Americans' life experience quite prepares them for the majestic, terrifying, otherworldly spectacle of Hugo Chavez in full rant mode.
The world Chavez paints with words is a world painted in black and white: an endless, epic struggle between the forces of absolute good and pure evil, with Chavez playing quarterback for the Good team. It's a world where anyone who questions him, even in the slightest and for any reason at all, is instantly identified as an agent of evil: a fascist running dog of American imperialism and, more than likely, a traitor on the CIA's payroll. Chavez's basic M.O. is to take the "with-us-or-against-us, dissent = treason" tropes of the post 9-11 Bush administration and crank 'em up to eleven.
It's only when you get a feel for this deranged little morality-play-cum-ideology that chavistas' single-minded obsession with lifting the president's term limit starts to make sense. To the radical chavista mindset, Hugo Chavez is no ordinary leader. More than a politician, he's a mystical figure. More than representing the people, he embodies the people. As an old chavista slogan - splashed on hundreds of billboards and painted on hundreds of walls - once put it: Chavez es el pueblo. He is the people.
It's the feel for this kind of chavista fanaticism that I always find hardest to convey to my leftie friends back in the U.S. Understandably, a lot of them have a hard time grasping what my big beef is with the guy. He's clearly popular, and he keeps winning elections. What could possibly be so undemocratic about that?
The only way I can really answer that question inevitably sounds like a bit of an evasion: if I could get you to spend half an hour watching Venezuelan state TV, soaking in the weird, sect-like vibe chavismo gives off these days, you wouldn't need any more convincing. It takes immersing yourself in the messianic maelstrom of chavista discourse to quite grasp how a country can retain all the institutional trappings of democracy even as its contents are gradually stripped out and replaced with a good, old fashioned cult of personality.
To call what's emerging in Venezuela a "dictatorship" would be to miss the mark just as widely as to call it a "democracy". What we're seeing is something different, something that doesn't have a name yet: a place where the leader's megalomania and his followers' atavistic drive to submit to him meld together to create not the usual murderous totalitarianism, but instead a tsunami of histrionics, a never-ending pantomime put on for the benefit of a political sect masquerading as a revolutionary movement taking cover behind a parapet of democracy.
Of course these guys are pushing for open ended re-election: they've crafted a worldview that only makes sense so long as Hugo Chavez holds on to power. Our only hope now is that enough Venezuelans - and enough moderate chavistas - still have enough common sense to realize that if we lift the end-date on this mad experiment, we really will go collectively insane.