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How democratic was Venezuela when Hugo Chavez was elected? Freedom of speech? Level of corruption? Rule of law?

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Voter turnout in Venezuela's 1998 presidential election was 63%, which is mildly-moderately higher than the United States (50.3% in 2000, 55.7% in 2004, 58.2% in 2008, 54.9% in 2012, an estimated 55.5% in 2016).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_Ch%C3%A1vez#1998_election
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout_in_the_United_States_presidential_elections

Leading-up to Hugo Chavez's presidency, Venezuela had a congress, judiciary, and system of checks and balances. Its legislature was bicameral. The electoral process gave universal suffrage.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Assembly_(Venezuela)#1961_Constitution

I could not easily find an enumeration of Venezuelan civil rights in 1998. However, for anyone attempting to reproduce my work, the government at the time was the Fourth Republic of Venezuela, and they governed under the 1961 constitution, which, I think was the twenty-fifth constitution of Venezuela, because Chavez's National Assembly was granted under the twenty-sixth constitution of Venezuela.

He expanded his powers through a constitutional assembly, which had broad support.

Chávez called an election on 25 July to elect the members of the constitutional assembly.[189] Over 900 of the 1,171 candidates standing for election that July were Chávez opponents. Despite the many opposition candidates, Chávez supporters won another overwhelming electoral victory. His supporters took 95% of the seats, 125 in all, including all of the seats assigned to indigenous groups. The opposition won only six seats.

Therefore, the rise of dictatorship in Venezuela was achieved through a perfectly democratic process.

On 12 August 1999, the new constitutional assembly voted to give themselves the power to abolish government institutions and to dismiss officials who were perceived as corrupt or as operating only in their own interests. Opponents of the Chávez regime argued that it was therefore dictatorial.
Notably, the presidential term was expanded to six years, and he was allowed to run for two consecutive terms. Previously, a sitting president could not run for reelection for 10 years after leaving office. It also replaced the bicameral Congress with a unicameral Legislative Assembly, and granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.

This is why it is important for voters to never abandon democratic ideals or give unconditional support to a wannabe authoritarian. The fact that the public trusted in Chavez's vision and to achieve great results as a dictator is why there is the quote "Good men with good intentions should not set precedent for bad men with bad intentions." Even if Chavez achieved remarkable prosperity, any number of the dictators who follow him could use that power for deplorable ends.

The 1999 Venezuelan constitution eliminated much of Venezuela's checks and balances, Chávez's government controlled every branch of the Venezuelan government for over 15 years after it passed until the Venezuelan parliamentary election in 2015

This also illustrates the danger of giving a single party majority control over all branches of government, most especially when the president has authoritarian tendencies.

My go-to statistical measure of democracy, the Democracy Index, was established in 2006. So, unfortunately, it is not available to quantify the strength of democracy in 1998 Venezuela. Other answers can attempt to derive strength of democracy in 1998 Venezuela using the Democracy Index's criteria -- electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

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