VENEZUELA, AS ITS president, Hugo Chavez, never tires of pointing out, is still a democracy. It's just a place where democracy is a little more nonbinding than elsewhere.
To illustrate just how democratic the country is, the 167 members of the National Assembly -- all of whom support the president because the opposition boycotted the last parliamentary election -- convened outdoors in Caracas last month, to be better seen by the throngs of red-shirted Chavistas gathered in the square, and unanimously voted themselves into irrelevance.
The vote gave Chavez the power to make laws by decree for 18 months, with no need to even use his Assembly's rubber stamp. Seeing as how Chavez already had total control over the judicial branch, how he is taking steps to quell opposition media and how he could have rammed any law he chose through the Assembly with barely a semblance of debate or a whisper of protest, his new powers seem gratuitous. But even symbolic oversight can be messy, bureaucratic and slow. Kind of like democracy.
Venezuela's constitution allows the legislature to cede decree powers to the president, which it has done several times to other presidents and once before to Chavez, in 2000. But normally this occurs in times of fiscal upheaval, not while the nation is swimming in oil revenues. Chavez is expected to use his powers to, among other frightening things, do away with presidential term limits so he can remain in office indefinitely.
Predictably, the opposition newspaper Tal Cual played the Hitler card after Chavez's move, with a front-page banner headline reading "Heil Hugo!" and an editorial comparing the National Assembly rollover to the German Reichstag's vote in 1933 giving Hitler extraordinary powers. Chavez, even more predictably, passed the charge onto President Bush. "Who would be the greater fascist, Hitler or Bush? They might end up in a draw," Chavez brayed the day after winning his new authority.
Democracy still has a faint pulse in Venezuela; any Chavez decree can theoretically be overturned by public referendum, as long as opponents gather signatures from 5% of the electorate. And Chavez, destructive as his economic policies will eventually be to Venezuela, is no Hitler.
Now Mussolini, on the other hand ...