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Since Hugo Chávez rose to power in February 1999, the Venezuelan government has been described by all manner of creative terms: competitive authoritarianism, illiberal democracy, hybrid regime and others.
Behind this semantic proliferation there has always been the notion that, despite evident authoritarian tendencies, the chavista regime never quite eradicated the democratic space. While independent media and journalists were harassed, they never disappeared. While elections were deeply biased, they took place regularly and on schedule. The opposition was always allowed to contend, votes were counted fairly and, on rare occasions, chavismo would lose. The government’s exercise of power was questionable, if not abusive, but the democratic origin of that power was difficult to refute. Venezuela was by no means a liberal democracy, but it was not a dictatorship; Chávez was no Lincoln, but he was also no Castro.