Democracy in Latin America: Colombia and Venezuela

By Donald L. Herman | Go to book overview

7
Politics and Policies: The Limits of the Venezuelan Consociational Regime

Diego Abente

The Venezuelan liberal democratic system is often depicted as the offspring of its oil wealth. As Robert J. Alexander argued in his contribution to this volume, generally, and quite uncritically, petroleum is credited with or blamed for most of Venezuela's successes or failures in the realm of politics. Contrary to that widely held view, this chapter adopts an alternative interpretation that emphasizes, without ignoring the importance of oil, the role that other political and economic factors played in shaping the contemporary political system of Venezuela. This approach is predicated on the assumption that the range of political outcomes that the abundance of oil resources makes possible is just too vast and that therefore more specific variables should be examined to understand why a liberal democratic and not another political system emerged. As a perusal of the twentieth-century history of Venezuela eloquently demonstrates, although the oil wealth set up the broad parameters within which the political process evolved, the specific democratic formulas were determined instead by a complex array of factors that brought about the complete transformation of the Venezuelan polity.

In the early stages of the oil industry, for example, petroleum-related revenues played nicely into the hands of Dictator Juan V. Gómez. They provided him with a steady source of revenue independent from the control of local sectors that strengthened his government and widened his "autonomy" vis-á-vis traditional socioeconomic elites. These revenues also allowed him to bail out factions of the rural elites, especially coffee growers but also sugar growers and cocoa producers, from agriculture and into more profitable operations. 1

The importance of petroleum increased even more in the following decades. In the 1940s it allowed the short-lived democratic experiment of 1945 to 1948 known as the trienio to finance a multitude of social programs. In the 1950s,

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