What made Hugo Chavez possible? How does a country let a man whose credentials are those of a coup leader who tried to topple a legitimate government become the unbridled ruler of the nation? What kind of people applaud a president who would replace the republican institutions with a system -- socialism -- that was so discredited in the 20th century?
Latin America's history shows that populist strongmen keep appearing with astonishing frequency. Understanding why Chavez came to power almost a decade ago and is now poised through a constitutional amendment to become president-for-life is a necessary step in trying to halt the emergence of future populist strongmen.
In the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela had a relatively free economy even though its political system was undemocratic. Far from giving rise to a typical state-run economy dependent on its natural resources, the discovery of oil in 1918 gave impetus to a free-market system that led to impressive results. Manufacturing and services, in addition to oil, expanded at rates greater than the economy as a whole.
But then something went wrong. It started under the dictatorial government of the 1950s and gathered pace when democracy came to Venezuela in 1958. Venezuelans went from being mostly self-relying entrepreneurs to depending on a government that began to grow -- and grow. Professor Faria thinks that economic success led to a desire for political participation -- i.e., democratic government, which in turn generated all sorts of pressures on a new political elite bent on pandering to the people's instincts for dependency rather than hard work.
I would add another explanation to the one given by Faria for the move toward big government after the establishment of democracy in Venezuela -- the political culture of the Latin American elites. They were profoundly influenced by the nationalist ideas in vogue at the time -- that development was only possible by breaking away from the international centers of power and the creation of domestic markets through government protection. The policies associated with these ideas -- import substitution, nationalizations, currency manipulation, price controls -- were deeply ingrained in the political mind of Latin America.
Economic freedom is foundational to other freedoms. Jefferson would probably argue that the right to self defence is as well. When government acts in a predatory manner or gives protections to the few at the expense of the many, it fails to contribute to progress.