Venezuela: The Character, Crisis, and Possible Future of Democracy

Article excerpt

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. …