CARACAS — In the mid-20th century, when dictatorial regimes were imposing themselves across Latin America, Venezuela was a solid democracy. Today, things have reversed: while democracy is well-established in most nations of the continent, it is the self-styled Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela that is sliding backward toward dictatorship.

When President Nicolás Maduro made an end-run around the opposition-controlled Parliament earlier this month by submitting the country's budget to the Supreme Court, the speaker of Parliament, Henry Ramos Allup, called Maduro a "dictator." Five days later, when the country's top electoral court suspended the process of collecting signatures for a referendum to end the president's term, the entire opposition joined in calling the Maduro government a dictatorship. (A massive rally in Caracas is slated for Wednesday to protest the shut-down of the referendum effort.)

The Chavista or Bolivarian regime's democratic credentials were always dubious to many. Its concentration of powers, lack of checks, fuzzy limits between leader, political project, ruling party, government and state, alongside discretional use of public resources, have all undermined Venezuela's democracy. Yet the system's founder, the late Hugo Chávez, could always point out his strong support with voters to dispel doubts and hold off challenges.

Classifying Venezuela as a dictatorship or democracy has not been easy these last years. The country ruled by Chávez was neither entirely democratic, nor dictatorial. The presence of an opposition that could compete in elections, though often in unequal conditions, made this rather a moderately authoritarian system.

Turn at the polls

But the picture has changed since Chávez's death. The argument of electoral support has vanished by the ruling party's showing in the last three elections. Maduro won a narrow majority — with just 223,599 more votes — in the 2013 presidential elections, a Pyrrhic victory in the municipal elections and finally, was defeated outright in the parliamentary elections last December, which handed the opposition an absolute legislative majority.

Bereft of the electoral argument and making ever greater use of public powers for political ends — notably with the judiciary — Maduro is now openly accused of being dictator by the opposition.

A dictatorship is a political system where power is concentrated in the hands of a leader, or clique that uses martial law and other extraordinary measures to construct, or reconstruct, a public order. It often seeks to maintain working institutions while presenting its own juridical and political justifications for the supremacy of the ruling clique. Eventually, the rules guiding the duration of a mandate and succession to power become fuzzy, and the reign of the regime becomes indefinite.

A fundamental element of dictatorships is the monopoly of violence and discretional use of instruments of coercion. The heirs of Chavismo do not have this monopoly, as organized crime is out of control in Venezuela and the country lives in constant fear of insecurity. And while various militant "groupings" and associations are linked to the government, this too seems to be beyond control of the leadership.

One must observe that in spite of violations of the political and economic rights of opponents and the presence of political detainees, the regime hasn't come close to committing the kinds of human rights violations seen under Latin American dictatorships in the last century.

Still, while it opened the path to democracy last century, Venezuela, by openly flirting with dictatorial practices, is now causing alarm across a continent where democratic ideals are still far from written in stone.