Venezuela: Dictatorial PowerSlide in Progress

Tomorrow, March 18th, I’ll be participating in the BBC’s SuperPower Nation conference, live online, all day long. It’ll be really cool: there will be bloggers from all over the world there, some of whom you may even have heard of. To set things up for the conference, I thought I’d give new readers a quick run-down on where we’re at in Venezuela these days. (BTW, on Twitter, you can follow the conference on #superpowernation.)

So here’s my very abbreviated introduction to Venezuela in 2010:

Recently, a lot has been written about "Authoritarian Drift" in our country. The Chávez government, though certainly legitimately elected and (for a time, at least) genuinely popular, has been drifting ever more decisively towards authoritarian ways of governing for over a year now. 

And it’s getting worse. To my mind, these days, the word "drift" is misleading. What was once a gentle "drift" is turning more and more into a kind of Dictatorial PowerSlide, as the government steps up its assault on democratic institutions and civil liberties more and more.

By now, in Venezuela, all the tell-tale signs of dictatorship are in place: an expanding cast of political prisoners, a fully controlled court system, a paranoid governing style, an over-the-top cult of personality, deepening ties to other dictators, the shut down of dissident TV and radio stations, and now, the thing that hits closest to home: an unmistakable government plan to censor the internet, including a project to set up an Iranian-style government controlled "single gateway" for internet traffic in and out of the country. For a nation that, just 10 years ago, was considered Latin America’s longest-standing democracy, it’s a lot to swallow. 

Hugo Chávez has turned out to be a master of gradualism: a politician consumately skilled at slowly, very slowly, using the legitimacy that democratic election granted him into a weapon against the institutional mechanisms that give democracy its staying power. Just last week, he ordered his followers to read up on Marx’s Communist Manifesto ahead of elections to the National Assembly. The message he’s telegraphing to them (and to us) is clear enough: the future Chávez envisions for Venezuela is a Communist dictatorship. 

It’s a grim scene, and one that makes alternative media more and more urgent, but also more and more under threat. With the traditional media increasingly censored (or self-censored under the threat of shut-down, which amounts to the same thing) – Venezuelans are turning more and more to the internet to find out what is happening in their own country. The last six months have witnessed an amazing explosion in the popularity of Twitter, which is now an absolutely vital tool for politically active Venezuelans.

Online activists like us are fighting a rear-guard battle against a government that treats all dissent as treason, and that scarcely bothers to hide anymore its determination to shut us down sooner rather than later. As this blog is written from outside Venezuela, we’re still able to write with relative safety and freedom – but every day we ask ourselves how much longer this kind of free exchange of information is going to be allowed in our country.

Venezuela faces a very difficult future right now, and those of us determined to stand up for the civil rights and freedoms of Venezuelan citizens online are feeling more and more besieged. Having moved on its critics in the traditional media, we know for sure we’re the next target on the government list. We’re going to hang on as long as we can, telling the stories that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable for as long that’s possible. But the threat grows day by day – and we’re under no illusions.

Thanks for dropping by…and spare a thought to the people still fighting day by day to keep the Chávez dictatorship from finally cementing its grip on power. They’re heroes, and they need your support.