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Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, left, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)
Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, left, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

Chavez was a master of ‘managed democracy’ Add to ...

The death of Hugo Chavez has brought tens of thousands of distraught mourners into the streets of Caracas and elicited genuine expressions of sympathy from Moscow, Tehran and Beijing – all capitals that shared, or at least admired, a little of his defiant worldview.

One place where he was almost certainly not mourned was a nondescript building on F Street in Washington, D.C. There, eight floors above Zara and H&M stores that are the only businesses a passerby would notice, is the office of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

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Over the 14 years Mr. Chavez was in power, the NED poured millions of dollars into vaguely titled programs supporting civic education, political processes and strengthening political institutions in Venezuela, as well as efforts promoting free enterprise. Collectively, the funding push was dubbed “democracy promotion” – similar to work the Congressionally funded NED does in dozens of other countries.

But in Mr. Chavez’s Venezuela – as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and now in Mohammed Morsi’s Egypt – the NED finds its efforts to promote Western-style democracy stymied by a concept that is difficult for Washington to grasp: the people chose the autocrat.

Venezuelans elected Mr. Chavez, not just once, but four times. None of the elections were particularly close (at least not compared to recent U.S. presidential elections), and even Mr. Chavez’s harshest critics had to concede that the process, at least on voting days, was generally free and fair.

The problem, in the eyes of the NED – which labelled Mr. Chavez a “threat to freedom” in a report – was that the playing field was badly tilted in favour of the incumbent long before any Venezuelan lined up to cast a ballot.

In that way, Mr. Chavez presented the NED, and similarly minded organizations like Freedom House and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, a conundrum similar to that created by another politician who shot to power from almost nowhere: Vladimir Putin.

It’s beyond question that Mr. Chavez and Mr. Putin – two men with a flair for showmanship and security backgrounds (Mr. Chavez was a rebellious military officer; Mr. Putin, a loyal agent of the Soviet KGB) – represented popular sentiment in their countries when they were first elected.

The oratorically gifted Mr. Chavez was propelled to power by anger at the spreading gap between rich and poor in oil-rich Venezuela. The stern Mr. Putin benefited from a fatigue with the wild form of democracy Russia experienced under Boris Yeltsin in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But while the ballot box brought Mr. Chavez and Mr. Putin to power, both quickly demonstrated they had no intention of relinquishing what the people had temporarily given them. The model they co-pioneered – which came to be known inside Mr. Putin’s Kremlin as “managed democracy” – is spreading around the globe, with the Islamists brought to power by the Arab Spring, led by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, among those borrowing heavily from its playbook.

Managed democracy is as cynical as it sounds. Once in power, pull up the ladder behind you so no one can follow the route you took. Corral the media, intimidate the courts, portray those who oppose you politically as traitors and enemies of the state.

Under such circumstances, you can hold elections every few years – with minimal chance of anyone else winning – and still claim popular legitimacy.

After his first election win, Mr. Chavez brought the media under tighter state control, mandating that all channels had to carry live his speeches and government announcements – known as cadenas. In the most recent presidential race, broadcasters were forced to interrupt a campaign statement from the main opposition candidate to carry a cadena. Dozens of radio stations seen as supportive of the opposition had their licences revoked outright.

Furious over a failed 2002 effort to oust him via coup d’etat, Mr. Chavez next took on the country’s judges, packing the Supreme Court with loyalists and sending a blunt warning to the rest by supporting the jailing of a judge who had crossed him by freeing a political opponent on bail.

Non-government organizations were next, with the passing of a 2010 law banning Venezuelan NGOs from receiving foreign funding. It was an open attack on the pro-democracy work done by NED and its ilk, forcing NED to start hiding the names of its grant recipients in Venezuela (although NED still spent over $1.5-million on democracy promotion inside the country in 2011, the last year information is publicly available).

Mr. Putin followed the same script, bringing independent television stations under Kremlin control, telling judges how to rule on politically sensitive cases and passing an almost identical NGO law almost identical to the one Mr. Chavez introduced. Mr. Morsi recently introduced similar measures restricting the activities of NGOs in Egypt – and is in a showdown with the country’s judiciary over election laws – provoking violent protests in Cairo.

Such measures put Mr. Putin back in the Kremlin last year despite widespread protests, and it will give Mr. Chavez’s anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, institutional advantages in Venezuela’s coming election.

Managed democracy – giving the appearance of choice while tilting the ground against all opponents – will likely help ensure the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt for the foreseeable future.

Will they win the next election? Yes. Are they democrats? Hardly.

As Venezuelans debate the mixed legacy of Hugo Chavez at home, that blurring of lines between autocrat and democrat is part of how he should be remembered by the rest of the world.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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