Democracy in Venezuela, as both ideal and reality, has been on a roller coaster ride over the past few decades. Four decades of uninterrupted constitutional succession and mass democratic politics have changed democracy from an impossible dream into a routine and expected state of affairs. Recent generations of Venezuelans have come to maturity knowing no other kind of political system: leftist revolution is a faint echo from the past, military rule only a distant memory. As democracy has become the norm, the issue of preserving democracy (of paramount concern in the early, shaky years after 1958) became less compelling than the goal of improving, extending, and "democratizing" the system. Praise of democracy as such has yielded to harsh and, at times, unremitting criticism. To put the matter plainly, Venezuelans' honeymoon with democracy ended some time ago. Democracy is now "the system," "the establishment." Beginning in the mid-1980s, as mounting economic, institutional, and political problems converged to create what ordinary Venezuelans refer to simply as "the crisis," many have come to see democracy "Venezuelan style" as a key part of the problem.
The democratic regimes in place since 1958 have profoundly shaped the transformation of modern Venezuela, making it into the kind of country it is today. There is both light and shadow here. Presiding over a steady (and at times spectacularly increasing) flow of income from the petroleum industry, elites controlling powerful political parties built a dominant central state. This state apparatus spent oil money building roads, cities, schools, and public works in ways that turned a poor, illiterate, fragmented, sickly, and predominantly peasant society into a highly urban, mobile, literate, and media soaked nation. When oil prices boomed in the early 1970s, the idea of a greater Venezuela (La Gran Venezuela celebrated in the speeches of then President Carlos Andres Perez) seemed achievable. Shadows appeared soon after. Starting with the currency devaluation of 1983 (the first in this century), income inequality began an inexorable increase, levels of living declined, and state institutions proved incapable of delivering basic services to the population. Health and welfare indices declined sharply, malnutrition rose, and diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis, and cholera appeared after a long absence. Large-scale corruption became endemic, and citizen disaffection made itself known in the form of growing voter abstention, citizen movements for reform, demonstrations and protests including massive public riots, hero worship of unsuccessful military conspirators, and support for new parties and for political leaders who campaigned on "anti-party" platforms.
This brief sketch suggests the intense and sometimes confusing pattern of conflict and change that has marked the life and times of democracy in Venezuela in recent years. There has also been extensive and sometimes bitter debate among scholars concerning the causes, of crisis and the significance and viability of reform. It is difficult to strike a balance, and many have slipped too easily into an all-encompassing pessimism. One observer has gone so far as to compare the current situation to simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.(1) We take a different view here. Although there can be no doubt about the severity of the crisis of democracy in Venezuela, obituaries are premature. "The system" has been considerably more resilient than much early commentary or theorizing anticipated or allowed for. Despite sustained economic decline, civil violence and military conspiracy, institutional decay, and leadership betrayal, sufficient reserves remained in "the system" and in the population to defeat two attempted coups, to generate a host of new political movements (including one major new party), to remove and impeach one sitting president, to choose an interim successor, to hold two national elections, and to return a trusted elder statesman to the presidency -- all in the space of a few years. The political elite has displayed remarkable consensus about how to proceed. A striking aspect of what one might call the "political management" of the crisis is how steady it has been, how closely constitutional norms have been followed. No government has been overthrown. Even the impeachment and removal of President Carlos Andres Perez in 1993--an event unprecedented in national history--was conducted with scrupulous attention to constitutional procedure. Hard times indeed, but "the system" did not roll over and play dead. Real human agents worked for solutions. They did not always succeed, and they may fail in the long run, but they refused to be passive captives.
The recent challenges to Venezuelan democracy would not have been possible without forty years of democratic development. We stress that the crisis that has gripped Venezuela since the late 1980s is best understood not simply as the decay of the established system, but rather as a crisis within democracy. The foundations of the democratic system, and the key to understanding the possibilities of democracy's transformation and survival in the future, rest on five elements that will structure our later analysis: the pattern of state-led socioeconomic development; the party and electoral systems; the evolution of state structures and interbranch relations; the emergence and possible significance of "civil society"; and the changing role of international forces. Powerful democratizing elements within Venezuelan society have generated a host of political and institutional reforms that together provide guidelines for the shape and character of a possible future democracy. Despite predictions of their imminent demise, the core political parties of "the system" (Accion Democratica and COPEI) remain in key positions, and political parties as such continue to be central to the routine of politics. At the same time, major reforms of the electoral system, combined with significant elements of decentralization, have sparked the beginnings of vigorous local and regional politics for the first time in this century. The result has been major changes in intraparty dynamics, in leadership recruitment, and in the way legislatures operate. There has been a notable increase in citizen activism manifest in a range of social movements unknown in Venezuela until the 1990s. These democratizing transformations have taken place against a backdrop of severe and unremitting economic decay. Most Venezuelans are worse off, with per capita real income below 1960 levels.(2) In addition, the specifics of the economic crisis and the particular way it has unfolded reveal the failure of the development strategy that inspired the founders of the democracy in the first place. Simultaneous political and economic reform is notoriously difficult to achieve. Whether or not Venezuelans manage the task will depend in large measure on the skills, resilience, and creativity that four decades of democratic life have created not only in the country's leaders, but also in its citizens, and in the new civil society that has emerged in recent years.(3)
Given the importance that we place on the purely political, as opposed to the cultural, social, or economic, it may be helpful to begin by clarifying a few key political terms. We use "democracy" as it is defined in the series Democracy in Developing Countries: a national political system characterized by free and open elections, relatively low barriers to participation, genuine competition, and protection of civil liberties. We use "democratization" in two related senses, each with notable implications for democracy. The first is temporal: Democratization appears as a stage in the creation and maintenance of democracy. Several phases are involved, running from inauguration through consolidation to a transformation to maturity. This is not to say that the process is irreversible or that "maturity" is an equilibrium point. As Venezuelan experience indicates, hard-won stability can be put in jeopardy by rapid social change, institutional rigidity, and organizational complacency. The second sense of democratization refers to the nature of organized social life and predominant cultural orientations. Democratization here involves the creation, nurturance, and spread of more egalitarian social relations and norms of authority and leadership. These are worked out in associational life, especially through encouraging participation, developing new sources and patterns of leadership, and creating lasting relations between group life and national politics. Ties like these undergird the formal legitimation of democracy with day-to-day experience of competition and association in all walks of life, with the spread of leadership skills and the diffusion of norms of accountability, and with greater openness in the conduct of public affairs. These comments suggest that democracy in Venezuela is not well understood as the sole creation of enlightened or supposedly "modem" leaders, whose values are gradually taken up by the benighted masses. Quite the contrary: from the beginning, Venezuelan democracy has rested on an alliance of middle-class leaders with poor and peripheral groups.
We go into such detail on the meaning of democracy and democratization because we believe that the issues must be put in positive terms. Democracy is more than just the absence of authoritarianism or military rule: democracy has sources, dynamics, and values of its own. It is particularly important to work on the concepts of democracy and democratization now, as the consolidation of new or restored democratic regimes throughout Latin America challenges common understandings of the process. Our effort to make theoretical sense of the decay and crisis of democracy in Venezuela shares many of the concerns that have driven comparative work on democracy and democratization. We will attempt to capitalize on four perspectives: stress on how contingent historical conditions shape processes and likely outcomes; attention to institution building, rules of the game, and interbranch relations; focus on specific political vehicles, above all, political parties; and concern with "civil society" as generative of new actors and more democratic rules of the game and state-society relations. In the scholarly literature to date, each of these perspectives has stood more or less alone: the first placing greater weight on economic forces and "political economy" issues; the second placing greater weight on politics itself, including a new look at institutions; and the remaining two stressing social forces and political dynamics, including organizational and leadership issues. Our argument here underscores the need to combine perspectives and to look in detail at the actual capabilities of civil society and social forces. This is not to say that we find those perspectives to be equally valuable. Some contribute more to our explanations than others.
Following on general analyses by O'Donnell, Schmitter, and Whitehead or the Colliers, Terry Lynn Karl and others have argued strongly that state structures and historically evolving institutions (conceived broadly) in Venezuela have been shaped by the petroleum industry, above all by the abundant, "costless" revenue that it has provided to political leaders and bureaucrats.(4) Oil money paid for what Cavarozzi terms a "state centered matrix" able simultaneously to mitigate social conflict and manage economic growth and distribution.(5) The state is top-heavy: controlled by remote elites, colonized by interest groups, and dependent on ever greater infusions of oil money. When revenues decline, the model is "exhausted," and conflict comes to the surface making crisis a part of everyday life. This perspective views institutions as historically contingent on social and economic variables. Here, we place greater emphasis on institutions as structures that shape the incentives and behavior of politicians and citizens. This focus informs our understanding of why interest groups in Latin America interact almost exclusively with the executive branch and how presidents have evaded an inactive Congress.(6) As a result, the relative power of the branches has been skewed in favor of the executive. Excessive presidentialism has become problematic, and as we shall see, has been an important factor in institutional immobilism and the decay of legitimacy.
This approach also points the way to several institutional reforms as possible solutions to the political crisis. There has been renewed attention to nomination procedures, the extent to which voters can modify the ballot, the extent to which votes are pooled among copartisans, the number and level of votes cast by each voter, election timing, and seat allocation formulas. Electoral rules of this kind can influence the partisan make up of branches, the degree of discipline among legislative delegations, and therefore, the support in Congress for the president's program. Constitutions normally define several formal sources of power, including the exclusive right to introduce legislation, the power to appoint and remove cabinet ministers, the margin necessary to override a presidential veto, and presidential decree authority. The allocation of those powers and the partisan control of branches can help to explain the likelihood of interbranch stalemate and the degree of presidential dominance.
An exclusive focus on formal institutions would leave out a great deal about the political process. Rebuilt political parties, for example, have played a critical role in connecting mass pressures for democracy with workable programs of government. Comparative work on political parties has underscored the central role that institutionalized parties and party systems can play in mobilizing social forces and channeling conflict, creating and sustaining long term loyalties, concentrating choice, and eliciting, training, and circulating generations of leaders.(7) Students of Venezuela have analyzed these issues very thoroughly.(8) In addition, a growing body of research demonstrates the powerful impact that electoral rules have on party formation and on the stability of party systems.(9)
At the same time, the emergence of "civil society" has brought active social movements of the most varied kind into the political process: business and human rights associations, neighborhood and church groups, new unions, feminist organizations, and citizen groups of all kinds. These phenomena have little place in the theoretical lexicon of the new institutionalism, and their absence makes it difficult to say much about who gets organized, in what way, and how and why they interact with politicians and policymakers. The impact of state society relations on the creation, growth, and quality of democracy has been a staple of political analysis since Aristotle and De Tocqueville, to name only two distinguished predecessors. Lipset, Lipset and Rokkan, and Dahl have stressed how a pluralistic, balanced development of social forces makes democratic politics possible.(10) Studies of social movements and "civil society" have expanded this perspective, placing greater emphasis on the democratizing impact social movements can have on political institutions and practices. So called "new" social movements are widely perceived as a seedbed of more egalitarian values and practices, and a vehicle through which new social strata can be recruited into political activism.(11)
Much recent work differentiates sharply between civil society and the state, as if the groups and movements at issue were isolated and wholly autonomous from state institutions.(12) This is unrealistic, and in the case of Venezuela, clearly untrue. Although the Venezuelan state has historically been large and wealthy, it has been neither autonomous nor totally dominant. In order to appreciate the potential of groups in civil society to affect political change, we must know about the qualities of the groups themselves and about the nature of their interaction with one another and the state. State structures contain several institutional channels for participation by organized forces. For much of the democratic era, business associations and trade unions effectively colonized the state, but a more diverse array of groups is now seeking to participate. These elements of civil society engage in regular interaction with the state--searching for access, connections, and resources, and working to alter the rules of the political game in their favor. In contrast to much of the recent literature, we acknowledge that not all groups labeled as "civil society" are small in scale and egalitarian in character: traditional actors including political parties, trade unions, and business associations also constitute civil society.(13)
Levine has pointed up the significance of building norms of legitimacy and of the autonomous role of leadership and political organization.(14) Together, these create bonds and shared loyalties between elites and mass publics, which make for enduring forms of power and, thus, make politics effective. Political commitments can be carried out because the power of strong organization makes implementation possible. Likewise, institutions were adopted, and rules of the game were agreed on and put in place that made it possible for competing groups and politicians to operate and to compete within a common democratic framework. A general willingness to play by the rules and its incorporation into regular routine political practice kept democratic institutions stable for more than thirty years. When the process established no longer fit the society being governed and when the policies generated benefited only the privileged few, the pace of political and economic reform picked up and efforts were made to revitalize the system. We examine these reforms and consider their significance for the way political space is structured and political authority legitimated in Venezuela.
Venezuelan experience has been enormously dynamic. For the first fifty years of this century, Venezuela stood as a model of military rule. The inauguration and surprising survival of democracy in the decades after 1958 made it a model of democracy in a continent where military authoritarian regimes became the norm. The current crisis of Venezuelan democracy has made its flaws all too evident, particularly given the contrast to hopeful new democracies being established elsewhere in the region. As we shall see, the very elements that were critical to the origins and long-term stability of the political system (strong parties, low social conflict in a "managed" civil society, and a dominant state paid for by oil revenues) are now widely taken as reasons for its decay. The point to make here is that more is at issue in this case than simply exchanging one sort of regime for another: democracy for authoritarianism. The challenge for the future will be to democratize Venezuelan democracy, so that it better reflects and represents the kind of society Venezuela has become in the democratic years.
HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: REGIMES AND POLITICS
The modern history of Venezuela is well documented, and only a brief account is possible here.(15) It is noteworthy how much of the relevant history is contemporary: Many core institutions and much of the tone and character of modern Venezuelan life are of recent origin. Indeed, in the Latin American context, Venezuela stands out precisely for how little carries over from the colonial period and the nineteenth century to shape the modern scene. There are few great families whose wealth and power span the centuries. The parties that dominated nineteenth century politics left no trace at all. The development of the petroleum industry, from the 1920s on, reworked all aspects of national life: destroying agriculture, spurring massive internal migration, and funding an active state. Petroleum income, cycled through the central state, underwrote the creation of an urban economy that attracted large scale immigration from southern Europe in the years following World War II. The resulting concentration of Spaniards, Italians, and in lesser numbers Portuguese immigrants profoundly changed the character of life in the capital, Caracas, and throughout the country.
It may be useful to preface the discussion of recent history with a brief consideration of several aspects of colonial and nineteenth-century Venezuela, if only to clarify why so little survived. Colonial Venezuela was a quiet and unimportant backwater of the Spanish empire. The audienca of Caracas depended, politically and administratively, on more important imperial centers in Bogota and Mexico. The local economy was based on ranching and plantation agriculture and was generally weak and unproductive. Religion was also weak: The ecclesiastical structures of the Catholic Church were largely absent in much of the territory. The colonial period did establish regional and population patterns that have persisted to the present, weighted to the primacy of the capital city and its surrounding area. It also set general relations of dependence on external trade.(16) In these regards, Venezuela differs little from the rest of Spanish America. Independence struggles with Spain were exceptionally costly. Many campaigns were fought on Venezuelan soil, and Venezuelan soldiers took a leading role in the fighting. The most famous of these was, of course, Simon Bolivar (the Liberator), whose statue (usefully equestrian) graces the vast majority of town and city plazas in Venezuela today. The Wars of Independence had several relevant effects. First, they began a series of civil wars and armed conflicts that continued throughout the nineteenth century, wrecked the basis of colonial wealth, and spurred the destruction of what passed for a local aristocracy. Continuous warfare also furthered notable administrative decay and regional fragmentation. Through the nineteenth century, the central state was, for the most part, nominal. Regional warlords held little-checked sway, and their conflicts permanently roiled national life. The role of these armed, regional caudillos began to fade only in this century, when a central state and permanent standing army were built after the 1920s.(17)
The long independence wars furthered the decline of Venezuelan aristocracies in another way. Once conflict was under way, masses of plainsmen (llaneros) emerged as a formidable cavalry and played a key role in the fighting. Troops such as these arose outside the lines of authority sanctioned by the old social and political order. Their initial leader, Paez, made his peace with the old elite, but the presence of large numbers of potential military forces of popular extraction and uncertain loyalty remained a visible and deeply felt threat, erupting time and again in the nineteenth century.(18) The most notable instance came in the Federal Wars (1858-63), which were especially bitter and destructive.(19) The fighting and constant upheaval undermined traditional ties throughout rural Venezuela and sparked a process of internal migration that has continued in accelerated ways ever since. Migration initially flowed to the Andean states of Merida, Tachira, and Trujillo, which were relatively safe havens from the violence endemic in central and plains regions. The growth of Andean states also reflected the emergence of the coffee-export economy. Coffee was well suited to the mountain slopes of the Andean region, much open land was available, and significant production got under way in the mid-nineteenth century."
The accumulation of wealth, population, and power in the Andean region had great significance for the future. At the turn of the century, Venezuela was conquered by an army from the state of Tachira, led by Cipriano Castro and Juan Vicente Gomez. Not long after, the feckless Castro was maneuvered out of office by his lieutenant, Gomez, who remained in power until his death in late 1935. Burgeoning oil revenues allowed Gomez to buy weapons, build a permanent standing army, and lay the bases for the first effective central state apparatus in Venezuelan history. Military and administrative power helped Gomez destroy the enemies of the past, and close the books definitively on nineteenth century political life.(20) Traditional political parties and military caudillos disappeared; political opposition and protest soon began to take new tacks, working to create mass politics and political democracy.(21)
The combination of unchecked state terror and police power with the social changes spurred by petroleum had unexpected effects. The growth of the oil industry soon began reshaping the social and economic landscape, creating new classes and social formations, and spurring notable population movement. These new groups and forces had little connection to older elites, or to the social or political structures of the past. Effective repression saw to that, and thus in curious and doubtless unintended ways the Gomez autocracy laid the bases of modern political life, leaving an open field and a growing potential clientele to the organizers of new movements. Most significant among these were the university students and trade unionists who emerged first in the 1920s, and later returned from exile and prison after the dictator's death. After the death of Gomez, political history falls easily into four periods: 1936-45, 1945-48, 1948-58, and the post-1958 years of democratic rule. The democratic era itself can be divided into three periods: beginnings and consolidation, from 1958 to 1968; stable two-party rule, from 1968 to 1988; and crisis and reform, starting in 1989 and continuing to the present. Each period has a different dynamic, with distinct organizational principles and political methods playing a central role. Table 1 summarizes some of the central features of each period.
TABLE 1 Regimes, Presidents, Central Political Groups, and Basic Political Methods in Twentieth-Century Venezuela Regime Type/Executive Central Political Groups Personalist Rule J. V. Gomez (1903-1935) Military, police "Transitional" Military E. Lopez Contreras (1936-1941) Military, I. Medina Angarita (1943-1945) police, Trienio of Democracy R. Betancourt (1945-1947) Accion Democratica, R. Gallegos (1947-1948) mass organizations Military Military, Junta (1948-950) police, M. Perez Jimenez (1950-1958) bureaucracy Democracy Consolidation Provisional Government (1958-1959) R. Betancourt (1959-1964) R. Leoni (1964-1969) Accion Democratica, Stable Two-Party Rule COPEI, R. Caldera (1969-1974) minor parties, C. Andres Perez (1974-1979) mass organizations L. Herrera Campins (1979-1984) J. Lusinchi (1984-1989) Crisis and Reform C. Andres Perez (1989-1993) Civil society, R. J. Velasquez (1993-1994) social movements R. Caldera (1994-1999) Regime Type/Executive Basic Political Methods Personalist Rule J. V. Gomez (1903-1935) Force, terror, bribery "Transitional" Military E. Lopez Contreras (1936-1941) Intramilitary consultation, I. Medina Angarita (1943-1945) limited suffrage Trienio of Democracy R. Betancourt (1945-1947) Mass parties, elections R. Gallegos (1947-1948) Military Junta (1948-950) Intramilitary consultation, M. Perez Jimenez (1950-1958) terror Democracy Consolidation Provisional Government (1958-1959) R. Betancourt (1959-1964) R. Leoni (1964-1969) Competitive elections, Stable Two-Party Rule political bargaining, R. Caldera (1969-1974) mass suffrage C. Andres Perez (1974-1979) L. Herrera Campins (1979-1984) J. Lusinchi (1984-1989) Crisis and Reform C. Andres Perez (1989-1993) Demonstrations R. J. Velasquez (1993-1994) R. Caldera (1994-1999)
Transitional Rule: 1936-45
Gomez was followed in office by his designated successor, General Eleazar Lopez Contreras, who had been his minister of war. Lopez Contreras struggled effectively to keep the lid on change. He repressed incipient trade union and party organization, keeping power in the hands of the army and state machine. Politics remained closed to mass participation. Lopez Contreras was succeeded in turn by his minister of war, General Isaias Medina Angarita. Once in office, Medina began a gradual liberalization. Seeking a base of support independent from Lopez, and perhaps influenced by the climate of democratic struggle in World War II, Medina opened the doors to union and political organization. With these changes in the air, an amalgam of groups applied for legal status, and the new party was formally constituted in September 1941 as Accion Democratica (AD; Democratic Action).
AD immediately began to build a comprehensive national party structure, pioneering in developing a new kind of political party in Venezuela: a permanent organization, existing at all levels and integrating many groups into the party structure. All major parties in Venezuela have followed this basic pattern. They are vertically integrated, with strong links binding block and neighborhood to regional and national structures. They are also horizontally integrated, with functional groups such as labor, students, professionals, or peasants represented within the party organization. These groups are themselves divided by competing party groups, a state of affairs that underscores the appeal of party as a key affiliation and enhances the independent power of party leaders, who are able to play off one group against another in the name of the party as a whole.(22)
During the Medina period, AD created a vigorous, effective, and close-knit organization. Party organizers helped mobilize and set up industrial and peasant unions; by 1945, AD had defeated competitors (for example, from the Communist Party) and generally had the upper hand in popular organization. But the limited nature of political change frustrated the party and its leaders. Although organization had indeed grown notably, the political system continued to restrict participation. Indirect elections remained the rule, there was no female suffrage, and in general, mass organization yielded little in the way of effective power. This context helps to explain the party leadership's decision to join with young military officers in a conspiracy against the Medina government. They saw it as a chance to initiate rapid and far-reaching change. The coup was launched on 18 October 1945, and after a few days of …