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The Agony of Venezuela

by Pierpaolo Barbieri

How a prospering democracy sank into dictatorship and hunger

Closing a speech that was as emotional as it was endless, the president invoked Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play’s opening scene, a boatswain dares to defy the wind as the storm gathers: “Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!” The charismatic leader then paraphrased the bard: “Blow, hard wind, blow, hard tempest, I have [a constitutional] assembly to withstand you!” The crowd was enraptured.

The year was 1999, and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, shortly after his election victory the previous December, was asking the assembly to deliver a new, “eternal” constitution. He put himself at the “mercy” of a fresh, temporary but all-powerful assembly, conveniently created to supersede a parliament that did not answer to him. Chávez got his way; he almost always did. The resulting constitution—Venezuela’s 26th—did away with the senate, lengthened presidential terms, unshackled military appointments from congressional oversight, and weakened the checks and balances exercised by judges and legislators. It was also the beginning of the end of democracy in Venezuela.

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