Academic journal article Social Justice

Dimensions of Democracy in Contemporary Venezuela

Academic journal article Social Justice

Dimensions of Democracy in Contemporary Venezuela

Article excerpt

For well over a decade, US Presidents Bush and Obama, mainstream US print and visual media, scholars, and well-known and widely used indices of democracy (e.g., Freedom House) have repeatedly claimed that Venezuela's political system under President Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) and his successor is (to various degrees) authoritarian. (1) Other scholars proclaim Venezuela a participatory democracy (Ciccariello-Maher 2014; Ellner 2011, 2014a; Hellinger 2011; Spanakos 2011). The debate over whether or not Venezuela is democratic depends on the definition of democracy that is used. For example, those who call Venezuela authoritarian or autocratic tend to take a rather narrow view of democracy that includes mostly Western notions of liberal democracy, whereas those who argue that Venezuela is democratic take a much broader definition of the term that focuses on direct/participatory democracy.

Democracy in its broadest conceptualization means rule by and for the people. Coppedge et al. (2011) argue that even though there is consensus about this meaning of democracy, there is no consensus about more specific definitions, much less about ways to measure it. They call for a new approach to the conceptualization and measurement of democracy. After a brief summary of recent research on democracy in Latin America and in Venezuela in particular, I will use the six "indicators" of democracy identified by Coppedge and colleagues to begin a preliminary analysis of contemporary dimensions of democracy in Venezuela.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was the first president elected outside the traditional two-party system that was institutionalized in Venezuela in the 1960s. He came into power because the existing political system had lost all legitimacy (Coker 1999, 2001). By 1989, dramatic increases in inequality, poverty, repression, and violence--together with the failure of the traditional corporatist elite pact-making (called the Punto Fijo system) to represent the public interest or include the majority of the population in any political participation other than voting--demonstrated the failure of liberal democracy in Venezuela.

This failure was confirmed by a survey I conducted in 1996, 1997, and 1998 among 425 university students from four public and private universities in the Caracas area. While my sample does not represent the Venezuelan population, it shows the extent to which the government was delegitimized among this sector of the population. Table 1 represents students' responses to questions that measure regime legitimacy. (2) Similar results had been found in earlier survey research. In 1973, Baloyra and Martz (1979) had found that 73 percent of 1,434 Venezuelan respondents did not believe that their government had done a good job, and 74 percent of respondents stated that public officials were not concerned with what common people thought. In contrast, a survey conducted by AmericasBarometer in 2012-2013 (nearly 15 years after Chavez came to power) shows that 48 percent of those surveyed rate the work of the government as very good or good, and only 12 percent regard it as bad. Forty-two percent responded that they believe the government is interested in what common people think (on a scale of 1 to 7, where 7 represents strongly agree and 1 represents strongly disagree, 42 percent answered 5,6, or 7,18 percent answered 4, and 39 percent disagreed or answered 1,2, or 3) (at wwwAmericasBarometer.org).

According to Latinobarometro surveys (at www.latinobarometro.org/latOnline. jsp), today the Venezuelan people are the most likely of all Latin American populations (with the exception of Uruguayans) to rank their country as very democratic, and this has increased over time. Table 2 compares Venezuela with selected Latin American countries.

Latinobarometro asks respondents to evaluate how democratic their country is on a scale of 1 through 10, where 1 is not democratic and 10 is totally democratic. …

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