The Unravelling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela

Article excerpt

Jennifer L. McCoy & David J. Myers [eds.], The Unravelling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

For almost forty years, Venezuela was considered a political and economic exception in Latin America, politically due to her early democratization and for being one of the most stable representative democracies on the continent. Economically the huge incomes from the oil industry have privileged and shaped the country, with its culture and institutions. But since the 1980's, Venezuela has fallen into a deepened and continued economic crisis, with social and political repercussions. Deadly street riots in February 1989 against a neo-liberal reform program were followed by two military coup attempts in 1992, the first of which was led by current President Hugo Châvez Prias. The traditional political elite have lost their former grip on the national scene. Hugo Châvez, since becoming in charge of the Venezuelan executive power, has caused dramatic turmoil, both internationally and domestically. The 1961 Constitution was redrafted through a series of popular elections and referenda. Likewise Châvez dissolved the national Congress, dismissed judges, and marginalized opposing political parties. Striving for the creation of a more direct form of democracy, compared to the representative, and in Venezuela bipartisan system (often referred to as partyarchy), Chávez has criticized the monopolization of politics by political parties, suggesting a more inclusive and participatory democratic model. The Châvez government has also impacted the political situation in neighbouring countries, and several other Latin American democracies have witnessed the Venezuelan transition with mixed reactions.

In this context, The Unravelling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela, edited by political scientists Jennifer McCoy and David Myers, endeavours to present a profound analysis of the complex transformations of the Venezuelan political system. The work consists of a selection of essays by renowned Venezuelan and North American scholars, who discuss certain perspectives related to how and why the representative model of Venezuelan democracy dissolved so completely in such a short time. They also present some visions for the future.

As the editors argue, the rise of Cháavez presents theoretical challenges. Which would be the conditions for a similar development in countries with less-established and institutionalized political traditions? Is it possible that the real ambition of Chávez (officially referred to as the Bolivarian Revolution) is the creation of a new kind of democracy to better guarantee the rights and opportunities of the marginalized masses?

The book examines the Venezuelan crisis in three main periods: (1) The breakdown of the Punto Fijo democracy (partyarchy), (2) the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez; and (3) the development of the allegedly direct and participatory democracy under Chavez.

The breakdown of Punto Fijo permeates all fourteen chapters of the book, and the repercussions of the emergence and advances of the Chávez government are analyzed from distinct angles. In the introductory chapter, Jennifer McCoy and David Myers identify the underlying factors of the transitions, which culminated in the rupture of the old democratic model and the rise of Comandante Hugo Chávez. The first part of the volume deals with the historical background of the Venezuelan political system. In the first chapter David Myers brilliantly sorts out the particularities of the Venezuelan case between 1958 and 1983, like the elite agreements and the convergence that made partyarchy survive, but also the weaknesses of the same system. According to Myers, one key weakness of the Punto Fijo system is the high degree of political centralization, even though increased regional political autonomy were in fact promised when the Pact was closed.

The second part of the book focuses on the main actors in the political processes in Venezuela. …