No democracy for these dictators

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Venezuelan voters did not quite show President Hugo Chavez the door over the weekend, but barely more than half of them did say he couldn't be their leader for life. It's some consolation.

Meanwhile, a mere 6,200 miles away, another supposed "democrat" — Russian President Vladimir Putin — saw his hold on power strengthened, as voters allegedly handed his United Russia Party an emphatic parliamentary victory that will allow him to continue on as "national leader" even when he gives up the title of "president" next year.

If it quacks like a ductator ... er, dictator, well, it must be a dictator.

We'd like to think the Venezuelans were just smarter than their Russian counterparts, though it may say more about Chavez's competence — or lack thereof — at rigging elections. In any event, no matter the recent outcomes at the polls, both of these nations and their leaders pose major problems for the United States in critical regions of the world.

Indeed, there are multiple similarities between these countries and the men who rule them. Both sit on vast oil resources and have exploited the profits from them to solidify their power. Both have cozied up to Iran. Both point to socialist role models; Chavez has trumpeted his fondness for Cuba's Fidel Castro. Their instincts are utterly autocratic as they exercise control over their respective militaries, judiciaries, legislatures.

America's loudest critic in Latin America, Chavez said he'd respect the decision of 50.7 percent of Venezuelan voters not to change some 69 constitutional provisions that among other things would have allowed him to run indefinitely, to detain citizens without charge, to nationalize industry and seize private property on a whim. "There is no dictatorship here," he said.

Of course, then he turned around and said, "I'm not withdrawing a single comma of this proposal ... The proposal is still alive." Almost cartoonish in the way he carries himself, Chavez might be laughable were he not so close and confrontational. No one should be surprised if, by 2012 — the year Chavez's term ends — he finds a way to stick around.

As Putin has. The former KGB operative — it shows — once upon a time pretended to buddy up to George W. Bush, but doesn't even put up a democratic pretense anymore. His party got well more than 60 percent of the vote in an election challenger Garry Kasparov called "the most unfair and dirtiest in the whole history of modern Russia." Kasparov, the former world chess champion — you'd be hard-pressed to find a western politician of such courage and intellect — had better be careful, because he might find himself arrested (again), or worse. Unfortunate things tend to happen to Putin's detractors.

Among the greatest mistakes we make in America is to assume that others desire freedom the way we do. Clearly, they don't. We have paid for some of those miscalculations since the end of the Cold War. In fact democracy doesn't come naturally to those who have little history with it. It takes bravery to rule yourself, old habits die hard, and we must not be so gullible in the future.