Chavez's Charade: Democracy in Venezuela. (Global Notebook)

Article excerpt

In December 1998, Hugo Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel and paratrooper in the Venezuelan Armed Forces, became president of the world's fourth-largest oil producer and third-largest exporter of crude oil to the United States.

Defying the hegemony of Accion Democratica (AD) and Copei, the two main political parties in Venezuela whose power had been waning since the late 1980s, Chavez's election seemed to mark a fundamental change in Venezuelan politics. Here was a president who appeared to represent the greater population--most of which is of mestizo (mixed European and Native American) background and at least 80 percent of which now lives below the poverty line, Venezuela was no longer to be led, in Chavez's own words, by the "putrid cupules" of a corrupt and self-serving oligarchy, but by a democratic and revolutionary government committed to the needs of the people.

Three years later, the country finds itself mired in a deep recession, plagued by political instability and social divisiveness. Support for Chavez has dwindled from a high of 80 percent to a mere 30 percent. The government faces widespread strikes, and a coup in April 2002 deposed Chavez for 48 hours. Yet the president still clings to power, aided by the illusion of democratic procedure and international support. Governing in the style of Juan Peron in Argentina, he has attempted to legitimize his reign by citing his own "democratic" election, holding frequent elections, and passing referenda such as the formation of a new constitution and a representative body, the Asamblea Nacional. However, democracy in Venezuela is more theater than substance.

Chavez's Venezuela is a prime example of illiberal democratic governance, a term elaborated by Fareed Zakaria in a 1997 Foreign Affairs article as a democracy with too much emphasis on representation and too little on liberalism. Chavez's 1998 electoral bid was steeped in emotional and populist rhetoric. The population responded positively to his lambasting of the business and old political elite and his call for a revolution leading to a "Fifth Republic" to ameliorate the severe income and opportunity inequality in Venezuela. Once president, Chavez lacked a concrete plan to fulfill his promise to cure social inequalities. The "Five Point Plan' the skeleton of his platform supporting economic, social, political, and cultural stability, is a mere restatement of the social democratic principles of AD and Copei and a cliched statement of the rights of man. His actual plan was a redistributive agenda in line with the second phase of illiberal, populist democratic governance.

In 2000, Chavez began Plan Bolivar 2000, a social welfare program that is the essence of populism. By providing social services such as schools, public works, and "popular markets" where the military distributed food at discounted prices, Plan Bolivar continues to harness support from Chavez's core constituency--the poor. However, this measure, like all recent populist efforts in Venezuela, failed to address the root of the problem: Venezuela's dependence on oil, endemic cronyism, and corruption. As such, it was ultimately a fiscally irresponsible and socially unproductive policy. …