In 549 B.C.E., Croesus, then secure as King of Lydia (a nation in what is now western Turkey), sought to expand his power by challenging the then-nascent Persian Empire. Because of the rapid expansion of that neighbor to the east, Croesus assumed it would be vulnerable to attack from his, a nation which has long since secured its power over the lands under its control. He grew ever more confident of his impending victory when he consulted the Oracle a Delphi and learned that if he crossed the river Halys, the boundary between the two realms, a great empire would fall.
When he crossed that boundary, an empire did indeed fall, but it was his own. Had he not sought to expand his realm — and his power, he would have likely continued to reign as a powerful king until his death. No wonder history remembers him not for his leadership, but for his wealth.
Half a millennium later, having defeated his rivals (and some former allies), Julius Caesar returned triumphant to Rome. He was assembling armies to attack the growing Parthian Empire in the East. Given his military record, his success seemed likely. But, before departing on that campaign in February 44 B.C.E, he declared himself dictator for life. A month later he was dead, murdered by a conspiracy which included some who had, until that declaration, supported him.
I thought of those men last night when I read that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost a referendum which would have strengthened the powers of the presidency and allowed him to run indefinitely for reelection. Even though Chavez controls the media on his nation, having closed down an opposition television network, he lost, in large part due to the “defection” of some of his erstwhile supporters who spoke out against this initiative.
While some of those supporters might continue to support the leader with aspirations of life-time dictatorship, his loss may serve as a rallying point for the opposition. They know now that he is not invincible. As Daniel Duquenal writes at Pajamas, “a revolution that loses an election is always in trouble.”
Perhaps, just as those two historical rulers lost their secure positions of leadership when they overreached, so too will the Venezuelan strongman also fall for overreaching. Instead of this referendum serving to consolidate his power, it may will serve as the beginning of the end of his domination of Venezuela.
It’s too soon to tell whether or not this is the beginning of the end. With his nation’s economy in the tank despite rising fuel prices (which should be helping this oil-exporter), his people might start blaming their demagogic president for their woes. And now that he has been proven vulnerable, he may not be able to contain the forces rising against him.
Time will only tell whether this referendum represents a setback for Chavez or becomes the first nail in the coffin of his aspirations to control his nation as his buddy Castro has long controlled his.
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