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When should journalists unpack the 'd' word — and call the dictators what they are?

Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro speaking to the country's National Assembly
PRESIDENT-DICTATOR Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro speaking in Caracas this year.

COMMENTARY On the eve of the Summit for Democracy, calling leaders like Nicolás Maduro "president" feels like complicity in their dark charade.

In journalism circles — especially in advance of next week's Summit for Democracy — there’s a lot of hand-wringing about what defines “dictatorship.” I’m not Merriam-Webster, but I do believe another handy-dandy dictionary example has just fallen into our laps — courtesy of the Venezuelan government. Or do I mean regime? Or do I mean … dictatorship?

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In the state and local elections Venezuela recently held, the one stunner was the race for governor of Barinas — a dusty backwater far from Caracas but one that carries enormous symbolism. It’s the home state of the late President Hugo Chávez, who founded the socialist revolution that’s ruled Venezuela for 22 years now — at first under a halo of democracy, but today under a hammer of dictatorship.

Under what political science criteria do I make that last assertion? Consider that this week the Barinas vote count indicated an opposition candidate had the gall to be winning the hallowed birthplace of the revolution’s Christ child — so Venezuela’s Supreme Court, on the orders of President Nicolás Maduro, arbitrarily disqualified that opposition Antichrist from holding the governorship.

That's not the m.o. of what we call a president. So how can a journalist — how can anyone — confer a respectable title like that on a leader who pulls that kind of shamelessly autocratic stunt? My profession is supposed to label things what they are. But this is the semantic quandary we’re increasingly facing.

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What should we call a leader who, as Maduro did in 2018, “won” re-election in what every legal expert called a fraudulent, unconstitutional sham? Who jails opposition leaders and tortures dissident activists? Who presides over so much criminal plundering of his country’s oil wealth that a fifth of its population has had to flee or starve?

To call Maduro “president” — the title Venezuela’s Constitution reserves for a constitutionally legitimate head of state — seems to contradict the sort of truthful designation we’re expected to practice.

To call these malignant caudillos 'President' seems to contradict the truthful designation journalists are expected to practice. But what's the proper trigger for calling them 'dictator'?

Same goes for leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who himself “won” re-election last month after throwing every bona fide candidate who opposed him behind bars for the crime of … opposing him. And after human rights groups say his security forces killed hundreds of protesters in recent years.

Same goes for Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel — although, in his perverse defense, at least Cuba’s communist Constitution doesn’t even make the pretense of pluralist governance. He’s got hundreds of his own dissidents languishing in the island’s lockups now after last summer’s unprecedented anti-government street demonstrations.


If mainstream media journalists like myself continue to stamp these guys as “president,” are we complicit in their malignant charade? But if we tag them “dictator,” given that they’re lefties, are we then tacitly applying for staff positions at Newsmax? The stylebook on my desk doesn’t indicate what the proper trigger for the “d” word is. But there needs to be one — and that’s a conversation MSM journalism needs to get more serious about and readers need to demand.

Dictatorship, of course, isn’t just a left-wing blight, especially in Latin America. Aside from Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the region’s most notorious tyrants have been right-wing — like Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the monstrous archetype of the epauletted despot.

Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (center)
Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (center)

Pinochet called himself “Chilean president” for the 17 years he ruled/terrorized his Andean outpost. But the MSM had few qualms about calling him “Chilean dictator” instead. Again, what was the journalistic protocol? Was Pinochet simply such an obvious case that editors and copy desks the world over simply followed the “you know it when you see it” standard?

I acknowledge the slippery slope here. We don’t call Abraham Lincoln “American dictator” because he suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. But what about the thugs, like outgoing right-wing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who govern dictatorially but do, in the end, hand over power? Do we call them “dictator” while they’re in office but “former president” once they give up the sash?

My inclination is to split the difference and give these caudillos the stripped-down moniker they deserve: just “leader.” As in, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. I wouldn’t risk lying by calling them president; I wouldn’t risk partisan hyperbole by calling them dictator.

But I could sure use more guidance — from colleagues, from readers, from Merriam-Webster — about when to go ahead and call them what we all know they are.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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