The Democratic Consensus in Venezuela: 1972 and 2002

Article excerpt


Thinking about democratic consensus in the context of Venezuela in 1972 and 2002 evokes images of something lost: agreement on basic norms, operating principles, commonly shared resources and institutions in which political opponents could agree to work together. Many of these elements did indeed characterize the political arrangements of post-195 8 democracy, and to the extent that we define consensus in terms of what was built in that period, the element of loss is palpable. Although there is loss, and loss of consensus has clear consequences for the way politics is carried on, more is at issue than just loss. The Venezuela of 2002 is a very different society than the Venezuela of 1972. Understanding the changes of these three decades is essential to explaining the decay of the kind of consensus put in place in 1972, and the real possibilities of building a new kind of political consensus.


As a concept, consensus has been used in many different, although related, ways. The most common usage points are either on norms or common ideological framework, or on a group of facts. In this sense, consensus can be about ideas and values, or about substantive issues or policies. A related usage directs attention to procedures, to agreement over how things are to be done, where decisions are to be taken, what resources are to be employed or accepted as decisive. Both ideological and procedural consensuses are important parts of any political process. Ideological or goal oriented consensus gets people together to act for a common end; procedural consensus makes it possible for them to cooperate even if they may not agree on a specific measure or goal, and to accept the results as legitimate, even in cases where their preferred outcome does not happen. In this latter sense, procedural consensus has to do with the construction of common institutions and the recognition of these institutions and their rules as decisive. With agreement on the procedures of elections, or courts, those in opposing camps would be bound (and feel obliged) to recognize outcomes as legitimate, and accept them even if their particular side loses. The construction of procedural consensus is an important component of social and political peace. Procedural consensus can be fragile, and its continuing validity is never automatic: all major parties must work at maintaining it.

The practical opposite of consensus would be polarization, a situation that in which groups are so totally divided and agreement (substantive or procedural) so limited as to make common action impossible. Extremes of polarization make it difficult for opposing groups to work within the same institutions and to accept the legitimacy of the outcomes they produce, particularly if they consistent losers over the long term. This was clearly the case for opponents of Action Democratica in the 1945-48 trienio. Contemplating the enormous majorities AD got, opposing groups concluded that it was impossible to win by playing according to these rules and therefore joined in coalitions to overthrow the regime in November 1948. The lessons that the leadership of major parties like AD, COPEIU and URD drew from the trienio underscored the importance of controlling polarization by building institutions to channel and control conflict.

Agreement, whether procedural, ideological, or substantive, is necessary but not sufficient for democratic consensus. To be democratic in the modern world, political rules and arrangements must meet other criteria: there must effective universal suffrage, barriers to information and organization must be reasonable and as low as possible, and there must be multiple points of access to power for citizens. A rule of law in place must treat citizens equally and equitably and there must be open and reasonably equal access to the institutions of the law. There is a further condition of democratic consensus, of growing importance in the contemporary world: political processes must be as open as possible to citizen judgment and evaluation. …