WASHINGTON—I am often asked why a government as authoritarian and corrupt as that of Hugo Chavez wins elections. In my five trips to Venezuela since Chavez took office eight years ago, I have come to a conclusion that many Venezuelans suffer something akin to Stockholm syndrome, that state of psychological dependence that the victim develops with a kidnapper.

Like all “revolutionary” strongmen, Chavez has built his legitimacy by discrediting the past. The 40-year reign of democracy (1958-1998) that preceded him was freer and less corrupt than his own regime, but its many shortcomings were enough to persuade a large segment of the population that democratic rule was a cloak for the appropriation of the country’s oil wealth by the established political parties, the bureaucracy and the business elite. This sentiment slowly began to take shape in the 1970s and reached a climax at the end of the 1990s. By then, the perception was that, in the previous two decades, privileged Venezuelans had robbed the poor of $250 billion worth of oil revenue.

An objective look at the last eight years would tell you that the plunder is much worse under Chavez. The oil income for that period is probably as high as $180 billion (exact figures are impossible to obtain because the government-owned oil company has not published financial statements since 2003). Poverty has not been significantly reduced, and a new and tacky elite is in place. As Gustavo Coronel, a former representative of Transparency International in Caracas, puts it in a detailed study of graft under the present regime that was published by the Cato Institute, “corruption has dominated the Hugo Chavez government as never before in Venezuela’s history.”

But the relationship between a large part of the Venezuelan people and Hugo Chavez has nothing to do with objective analysis. The perception that Chavez is a redeemer who has come to save Venezuelans from their past has allowed him to do away with most checks and balances through a combination of referendums, elections and decrees that have placed everything from the Congress to the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council under his personal control. Then came his takeover of the oil wealth and other sources of revenue, which has resulted in a doubling of the national debt. For instance, several billion dollars have been transferred from the national oil company and the central bank to a “development” fund called FONDEN and a “development” bank called BANDES that are accountable only to the president.

In essence, the nation has been kidnapped by Chavez. Millions of Venezuelans have come to depend on government programs known as “missions” for their livelihood. These programs have placed the welfare recipients at the political mercy of the authorities. Many people are convinced that their personal future depends on handouts rather than wealth creation. Anybody who opposes the government is seen as an agent of the old elite determined to throw the poor to the wolves.

Add to this Chavez’s systematic tampering with the electoral roll. The registry includes 17 million voters, a surreal figure in a country of 26 million people in which more than half the population is under the legal age to vote. The drive to register foreigners began in 2004, when Chavez faced a recall referendum and offered citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Colombian migrants. Since then, the electoral roll has grown 10 times faster than in previous years. Those who signed the petition for the recall referendum were exposed on government Web sites that gave out their names. Many of them subsequently reported reprisals at work and had trouble renewing identity papers.

All of this goes a long way toward explaining the fact that Chavez continues to win elections. But there is something more—the culture of “caudillismo,” that is, the identification on the part of many people with the larger-than-life strongman who is a father figure to them: They interpret the outside world through his eyes. The politicization of Venezuelan society through the suffocating intrusion of the government has reduced the people’s sense of space in the way the kidnapper reduces the space of the victim. Nothing outside of that relationship can possibly exist for the victim while the kidnapper is in control. Until internal or external factors begin to weaken that dependence, Chavez will continue to enjoy enough support to hold his numerous but impotent critics in check.