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Socialist dictatorships under a democratic guise

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Uta Thofern
August 3, 2016

"It should look democratic - but we have to hold the reins," former East German communist head of state Walter Ulbricht once said. Venezuela and Nicaragua appear to function along those same lines, says DW's Uta Thofern.

Venezuel border with Columbia Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Mendoza
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Mendoza

We all know how it ended. Back in May 1945, when German politician Walter Ulbricht propagated a make-believe democracy, he let the Soviet-controlled "Ulbricht group" fight against supposed opponents instead of rebuilding structures in war-torn Berlin. During almost the entire first 25 years of the German socialist dictatorship - East Germany (GDR) - Ulbricht was that state's most striking leader. The state never managed to survive another 25 years.

The communist attempt at deception worked convincingly for years, until in 1989, a sufficient number of people were sufficiently disenchanted with the system to topple the Berlin Wall. Not just idealists who believed in their revolution and wanted to build a new, better Germany after the Nazi dictatorship; average Germans, tired of the war, also hoped for a better future with socialism. Even in free West Germany, the GDR had a lot of supporters to the very end, people who seriously believed in progress on the never-ending "path to communism" - and called it democratic.

Venezuela's failing socialism

In Venezuela these days, the number of true supporters of socialism in its Bolivarian-Chavist version is on the decline. Of all people, the devastating supply crisis has hit the poorest hardest - people who once profited from the Bolivarian reforms - while more prosperous citizens can still at least buy medicine abroad. The more the government fails with its formulas from a past century, the more bizarre its pseudo-democratic contortions.

The Chavist-dominated election commission finds ever-new excuses to delay the referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro: one day the number of workdays has to be limited because of the energy crisis, the next there's talk of mass election fraud, or deadlines not met. The fact that the commission finally recognized the signatures needed to launch the first part of the referendum only means that they're trying to keep up a pretense of democracy. The very same day, another test was announced along with the crystal-clear statement that there won't be a referendum until next year at the earliest. Maduro can still be toppled at that point, but since his regular term will then be less than two years, there would be no snap elections; instead he would be succeeded by the socialist vice-president.

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DW's Uta Thofern

The division of powers has long been abolished in Venezuela. Parliament was paralyzed after the opposition's overwhelming election victory, and all the other institutions are in Chavist hands. Abroad, the democratic mirage still works. While Venezuelans go hungry and people die because they have no access to medicine, the international community is bent on lengthy negotiations. As long as it looks democratic, there's no need to get upset.

One-party rule in Nicaragua - so what?

The same is true for Nicaragua. The rest of the world hasn't even a passing interest in the fact that President Daniel Ortega just reintroduced one-party rule after the opposition was excluded from parliament. As justification, Ortega's Sandinistas managed to present a few resolutions they'd penned themselves. The man who betrayed his own Sandinist revolution in the past is now using his second democratic chance to do away with democracy. When the "elections" roll around in November, Ortega can be sure of a majority.

On the international stage, the rulers in both Nicaragua and Venezuela can bet on the same mix of naive idealism and indifference that allowed East Germany to be respected for years. After the fall of the Wall, disappointed social romantics from all over the world found a new spiritual home in Latin America's Bolivarian revolutions. All socialist experiments can be assured of their support - to the bitter end.

And the realists? They're busy with practical policies, dealing with Turkey, Russia and China. That wasn't any different in 1989, so there's room for hope.

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Uta Thofern Head of DW's Latin America departments with a focus on democracy, rule of law and human rights