In light of the tragic events in Venezuela, it’s time for us in the media to start calling things by their name, and refer to Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro as what he is – a dictator.
Most media organizations still refer to Maduro as “Venezuelan President,” “Venezuelan leader” or “Venezuela’s head of state.” That’s OK for a first reference, but it puts Maduro at the same level as Germany’s Angela Merkel, or – even if you consider him a disastrous president, as I do – Donald Trump.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a dictator is “a person who rules a country with total authority and often in a cruel or brutal way.” You won’t find any definition of a dictator in any other dictionary that doesn’t apply to Maduro.
That’s why U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was right on target when he stated on July 31 that “Maduro is not just a bad leader: He is now a dictator.”
Maduro has completed the job started by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, of dismantling Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
After winning a highly dubious election in 2013 with 50.5 percent of the vote, Maduro filled his government with corrupt generals, and escalated repression of political opponents.
In 2015, despite widespread intimidation and stringent press controls, the opposition won legislative elections by a landslide. It won an impressive two-thirds majority of the National Assembly, which enabled it to fire ministers or change the constitution.
But Maduro immediately blocked several opposition legislators from taking their seats, depriving the opposition from its absolute majority, and then packed the Supreme Court with 13 new justices.
From then on, he has used the Supreme Court to gradually reduce the parliament’s powers. A few months ago, Maduro tried to dissolve the National Assembly altogether, but had to reverse himself after a national and international outcry.
Now, Maduro has gone all the way to try to impose a Cuba-style dictatorship in Venezuela: He convened a sham July 30 election for a constituent assembly that plans to re-write the constitution and close down the National Assembly.
The vote was a farce: As in Cuba, you could only vote for government supporters. All 5,500 candidates were members of Maduro’s socialist party. There were no credible international observers, and reporters were forced to remain 500 meters – 550 yards – away from the polls.
To make things worse, Maduro’s dubious claim that more than 8 million people voted in the constituent assembly election was later refuted by the election technology firm in charge of counting the votes.
The company, Smartmatic, said the government had manipulated the count and added at least 1 million votes. According to internal electoral council documents disclosed by Reuters, only 3.7 million people had voted by 5:30 pm, which would have made in virtually impossible to reach the government’s number by the end of the voting shortly thereafter.
If all of that doesn’t meet the dictionary’s definition of “a person who rules a country with total authority,” what does? And as for the second part of the definition, stating that dictators often rule “in a cruel or brutal way,” there have been at least 120 deaths in the government’s repression of street protests over the past four months.
Of course, Maduro is not the only despot we in the media rarely call a “dictator.” Journalistic etiquette calls for refraining from using such words in the news pages, and reserving them for the opinion sections.
And we have a long-standing habit of referring to dictators as “presidents” while they are in power, and to only call them “dictators” once they are toppled or dead.
We did the same with rightwing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and with leftist dictator Fidel Castro in Cuba. And we are still doing it today with Cuba’s Raul Castro.
It’s time to change all of that. Calling these people dictators is not a matter of opinion. It’s a fact. And if you don’t agree with me, please show me any definition of a “dictator” under which Maduro would not deserve to be called that.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may email him at email@example.com.