The recent elections in Venezuela and Russia provide stark contrasts between a country that appears to operate under constitutional norms and produces results at odds with what we expect, and a government heading toward one-man tyranny. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez had sought constitutional reforms that would have allowed him to centralize power and remain in office indefinitely. As popular as Chavez and his social program are with the vast majority of impoverished Venezuelans, the referendum failed. The people of Venezuela, it seems, have become attached to the substance of real democracy and not just attached to policy outcomes. While they will no doubt continue to support Chavez and his economic and social reforms (polling shows these remain popular, and Venezuela's oil money provides the means to pay for them), the people of Venezuela also retain the rule of law and the promise of genuine democratic processes.
Russia, on the other hand, presents a very different tale. Where Chavez has rigorously followed the rule of law -- declining to take revenge after the failed coup of 2002, seeking to defeat his foes at the ballot box, and engaging in a program of economic reform authorized by process found in the Venezuelan constitution -- Putin has arrested members of the independent media, used thugs to intimidate voters, and made a mockery of the electoral process. Bit by bit, Russia returns to the ways understood by a former KGB aparatchik, complete with show votes and a tame, state controlled media.
Chavez's flamboyant style, appeals to socialist economic platforms, and vehement anti-Bush rhetoric have earned him far more criticism in the U.S. press than Putin has received. Chavez is repeatedly denounced as a tyrant who destroys democratic institutions and imposes a socialist tyranny. Putin is routinely let off the hook for massacres in Chechnya, the suppression of all opposition, and an increasingly aggressive use of oil and natural gas resources as a trump card in foreign policy.
Hopefully, the next President will take the opportunity to evaluate where the real threat to democracy and to U.S. interests lies. Our current administration has done little to expand critical ties in the growing economies of South and Central America, despite high hopes before 9/11 that the former Governor of Texas who also speaks Spanish would focus on strengthening ties with Latin America. A next President will have the opportunity to change that, including re-evaluating whether Chavez and his supporters in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America represent forces that must be opposed or an economic philosophy supported by a popular mandate that the U.S. must respect while seeking to promote its own interests. And, by the same token, a new Administration will need to determine whether Russia has once again become the enemy of the West governed by a handful of men careless of the welfare of their people.