“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” Cassius informs Brutus in persuading him to mount a coup,” that taken at the flood leads onto fortune.” It leads onto other things too, among them, as Cassius discovers in the course of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” defeat and death. But the early stages of a successful coup and dictatorship are often smiled upon by fortune. Filipinos and foreign visitors both were impressed by the early days of the Marcos coup. It had replaced near-anarchy with civil order and ordinary apolitical citizens were accordingly grateful. Argentina’s generals brought an end to terrorism; Pinochet delivered not only order but prosperity; Castro promised social justice. All of them seemed better than the terrorism/anarchy/oppression they had replaced.
None of these happy outcomes lasted — except, paradoxically, Castro’s, which in every other respect has been the least successful dictatorship of those listed. Over time people became accustomed to the benefits of order and angry at the loss of liberty. Almost all dictatorships end badly for the dictator. Either he is ousted in a coup, or forced to flee, or murdered, or — like Mussolini — murdered and humiliated simultaneously. In short, dictatorship is a roller-coaster. A sensible despot — of which there are few — gets out of the car before it starts to descend.
Last weekend Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin were given different reasons to reflect on this truth. Chávez expected — and was expected by others — to win handily the Venezuelan referendum that inter alia would have installed him in power permanently. The fact that according to the official figures he was defeated narrowly suggests that he in fact lost heavily. His roller-coaster car is already heading downwards.
Some of his earlier supporters must have voted against him this weekend. If media reports are accurate, they did so because they valued democracy. The referendum would have taken the power to choose mayors from the voters and given it to — Chávez! They drew the appropriate conclusion. Some who voted for Chávez undoubtedly did so from the fear that he would win and might perhaps punish their resistance. They now have cause to reconsider their timidity.
The high price of oil has been sustaining Chávez in money, popularity, and power until the present. It will probably not rise higher in the medium term — and it may fall. So it will be no easier and maybe harder for Chávez to purchase support from the voters. All these factors count against him. The Bolivarian Revolution no longer looks inevitable.
If Chávez subsequently decides to push through the referendum a second time, as he has hinted doing, he could probably win only by blatant cheating and arm-twisting. It is far from certain that the armed forces — his original and most important power base — would support an openly undemocratic election. His strongest ally, the (ailing) Castro, looks unable to offer the kind of interventionist help he gave Allende and the Grenadian Marxists (with unhappy results on both occasions). Chávez’s other neighbors — both those allied to him and those he seeks to subvert — will see that he is a reduced figure and act accordingly.
In short, Chávez would be sensible to buy a vacation home outside Havana and plan his departure from the carnival. He may not, however, be sensible. He also has the resources to attempt an internal coup, if not to ensure its success. To provide for that eventuality, the Bush administration should ask the Organization of American States to embark on contingency plans for isolating and containing an undemocratic Chávez regime.