Politics as Usual

Article excerpt

NOT MUCH MORE THAN A decade ago, political scientists considered Venezuela to be a Latin if American success story. While its neighbours were wracked by dictatorship and political violence, Venezuela boasted a stable democracy.

Between 1960 and 1990 two moderate parties took turns to run the country and manage its oil wealth. Even the names of the two parties - Democratic Action (AD) on the left and the Committee for Independent Elections (Copei) on the right reflected the country's enthusiasm for the new democratic system established when the Perez Jimenez dictatorship was ousted in 1958.

And for the first part of this thirtyyear period at least, Venezuelans cast their ballots in relatively large numbers. Then, during the 1990s this political system began to disintegrate. Populist and left-wingers gained support and in 1998 - Hugo Chavez - a former military officer who had led an unsuccessful coup six years previously, won a landslide victory in presidential elections.

DIVIDING SPOILS

The analysis of these events is the subject of The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela by Julia Buxton, a British academic. The institutional framework of Venezuelan democracy - agreed between AD, Copei and a third smaller party at the so-called Pact of Punto Fijo in 1958 - is at the centre of the story.

These democratic parties took direct control of many state institutions, setting up arrangements whereby their own representatives were guaranteed control of the judiciary, the electoral council, and even the armed forces. At the same time, the parties negotiated with business and labour leaders, agreeing to channel labour relations and economic management along corporatist lines. The Communist Party, their erstwhile allies in the struggle against the dictatorship, was excluded. This spoils system was underpinned by oil, which then as now provided the bulk of fiscal income and overseas earnings. Oil revenues paid for subsidies and offset the costs of protection. Oil also greased `social and political harmony...revenue was to be distributed through the parties to their constituents and sectoral affiliates: The result says Buxton was a 'partidocracy' - in which the parties virtually monopolised a formally open and competitive political system.

This worked relatively well at first, especially when oil prices were rising sharply during the 1970s. But when prices started to fall in the following decade, less money was available and support weakened. With fewer people benefiting, resentment grew against corrupt party bosses.

Things started to go wrong economically.

To make up the shortfall in tax revenue, the government began to borrow heavily, increasing the burden of debt service. While the economy grew by a cumulative 36.6 percent between 1961 and 1979, in the next ten years it declined by 20.6 percent. After being elected for his second term as president in 1988, Carlos Andres Perez, a leader of the AD, attempted to address these problems with a sweeping programme of economic and political reform.

POPULAR PROTEST

But the effort was unsuccessful, largely because of widespread popular opposition to Perez's plans to liberalise the economy. …