The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s official: Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at a rally at in Caracas on June 14. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

All this year, as they trudged through an unprecedented economic implosion, Venezuelans have been gearing up for what was meant to be the defining political event of the year: a referendum on whether to recall our increasingly loathed authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro. The tense buildup suddenly ended Thursday as five separate (and supposedly independent, but c’mon now) lower courts approved injunctions to suspend the recall, closing down Venezuela’s last best hope for a peaceful solution to its long-running political crisis.

Even for battle-hardened Venezuelans, it all came as quite a shock. A major signature-gathering drive to officially activate the recall vote was scheduled for next week. Opposition activists were busy preparing their plans to get out their voters to sign. No one, not even the military, seemed to have been expecting this.

Today has been a day of sober reckoning in Caracas, as Venezuelans process the death of the recall process and its implications. It’s easy to overdramatize these things, I realize, but it’s also important not to lose the forest for the trees: a relatively large, relatively sophisticated major oil producer just three hours’ flying time from the United States has just become the second all-out, no-more-elections dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.

This is serious. A turning point.

See, for 17 years, political scientists have been casting about for a suitable way of describing the strange in-between political system Hugo Chávez invented for Venezuela. It wasn’t quite democracy in the usual sense, clearly, but it also wasn’t a normal dictatorship. The government might not have had much time for the fine print of constitutional rule, but in broad terms people were basically free to associate, speak and vote. What do you call that? Competitive authoritarianism? A hybrid regime? An illiberal democracy? None of the labels seemed to stick; what did stick was the lasting impression of in-betweenness, of Venezuela as not-quite-a-dictatorship.

For Venezuela’s pro-democracy activists, fighting a regime that has instituted dictatorship by tiny increments has been an exhausting ordeal. Which is why today, mixed with the genuine anger at the subversion of our constitutional right to a recall, you can detect just a hint of gratitude for the clarity this brings.

We’re rid of the adjectives. We are finally through with the academic circumlocutions.

There’s no need to hyphenate it anymore. Venezuela is just a dictatorship.