The Chávez phenomenon has had strong demonstration and contagion effects beyond Venezuela. Eager to overcome instability and cement their own supremacy,
Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia (2006-) and Rafael Correa of Ecuador (2007-) have emulated Chávez's script. As did their political ally and financial
benefactor, they have used constituent assemblies to augment executive powers, allow for presidential reelection, and weaken institutional checks and
balances. From that position of strength, they have made discretionary use of the law for political purposes. With this discriminatory legalism, they
have attacked, undermined, and intimidated the opposition in their respective countries, moving toward competititve authoritarianism as well.
Similarly, strong informal pressures and disrespect for constitutional principles have enabled Daniel Ortega (2007-) to establish his hegemony in
Nicaragua. President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras (2006-2009) also sought to follow in the footsteps of Chávez, Morales, and Correa by convoking a constituent
assembly and preparing his own perpetuation in power; yet coordinated opposition from Congress, the courts, and the military aborted this effort through a
controversial June 2009 coup. Even President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (2007-), whose fervent supporters take inspiration from Chávez, is
eyeing constitutional changes and renewed reelection (she is now in her second term). Given Argentina's weak and disunited opposition, this push for
entrenchment, combined with continuing attacks on the press and the president's personalistic command over the state, has created alarm in civil society
about looming threats to the country's hard-won democracy.
That Venezuela had already fallen under nondemocratic rule was confirmed in October 2012 by Chávez's unfair reelection, achieved with the help of
intimidation tactics, tight restrictions on the opposition, and the massive misuse of the state apparatus. Since the third wave reached Latin America in
1978, the region had seen only occasional threats and temporary interruptions of democracy in individual nations. The recent suffocation of political
pluralism in a whole group of countries is without precedent. For the first time in decades, democracy in Latin America is facing a sustained, coordinated
threat. The regional trend toward democracy, which had prevailed since the late 1970s, has suffered a partial reversal. Unexpectedly, democracy is now on
the defensive in parts of the region.
With its electoral façade and progressive rhetoric about helping the excluded, the soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America has
an attractive face. It exerts an appeal on regional and global public opinion to which academics are not immune. The military dictators of the 1960s and
1970s were ogres with no legitimacy who depicted themselves as stopgaps--house cleaners putting politics in order so democracy could return. By contrast,
Chávez and friends have claimed to institute a new participatory--and hence qualitatively better--form of democracy and to promote social equity and national
independence. Rather than a short-lived detour, they seek to carve out a distinct development path purportedly leading to what Chávez called "socialism
for the twenty-first century." Their competitive authoritarianism appears not as a limited interruption but a permanent alternative to pluralist,
representative democracy. This appeal is unusual among contemporary nondemocracies; it contrasts with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's more bluntly
unsavory brand of autocracy, for instance. These "progressive" claims aggravate the risks emanating from the recent turn to authoritarian rule.
The current authoritarian trend in Latin America is not regionwide: Major countries such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and now Colombia seem safely
consolidated as democracies; Costa Rica and Uruguay boast especially high democratic performance. But the unexpected ease with which a coordinated nucleus
of competitive authoritarianism has emerged must give pause. To see even Argentina, with its tragic history, being lured by the siren song of personalistic
plebiscitarianism is worrisome indeed.
As Steven Levitsky and James Loxton and Raúl Madrid have emphasized, Chávez and his friends used populism to entrench their predominance and install
competitive authoritarian regimes.4 Populism, understood as a strategy for winning and exerting state power,5 inherently stands in
tension with democracy and the value that it places upon pluralism, open debate, and fair competition. Populism revolves around personalistic leadership
that feeds on quasi-direct links to a loosely organized mass of heterogenous followers. Bypassing or subjugating intermediate institutions such as firmly
organized parties, the leader-- often a charismatic figure--establishes face-to-face contact with large numbers of citizens. In earlier decades, mass rallies
were crucial; nowadays, television allows populists to reach their followers "in person." Chávez hosted a regular Sunday talk show. The leader in turn
ascertains "the people's will" through frequent popular votes and opinion polls. To show vigorous leadership, seem indispensable, and boost followers'
loyalty, populist politicians are fond of constantly attacking enemies, at least rhetorically. In this way, the leader blames others for the problems that
have allowed the leader to take power and act as the savior of the fatherland. The leader is the star of a drama in which "the people" struggle heroically
under the leader's direction against selfish, corrupt enemies at home and abroad.