The Erosion of Democracy in Venezuela
By Alejandro Ortega
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he term “Chavismo” refers to the left wing political ideology associated with the late President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. It is also a word that I have heard as long as my eighteen year-old mind can remember and evokes memories of the stark political divide that I was very much aware of even before I understood the causes, effects, and nuances of such polarization. In 2007, I recall leaving a doctor’s appointment in downtown Caracas on a balmy spring day and seeing a construction worker wearing a blood-red sleeveless shirt proudly yelling “Long live Chavez” while some passerbyers scoffed in disgust. Unfortunately for said construction worker, his wish would not be granted, as Hugo Chavez would go on to meet his death on March 5th, 2013 and would be replaced by the current President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. Ever since Maduro assumed the office of President, the country of Venezuela has seen its nationwide poverty rate rise to an estimated eighty seven percent as of 2017 and its inflation rate increase exponentially since 2016, reaching a record breaking one million percent as of early August 2018. The complex tension I witnessed as a first grader largely morphed from polarization to an almost universal dissatisfaction with an increasingly undemocratic government. Despite an estimated eighty percent of the population of Venezuela opposing the Maduro regime, a series of structural changes within the Venezuelan national government have consolidated power under the Maduro administration. Such changes have been accompanied by growing attacks on opponents of the current regime. Such an erosion of democracy, despite having dramatically accelerated over the past five years, dates back to the thirteen years during which Chavez was in power.
Described as a “left wing populist” by CNN, Chavez won the Venezuelan presidential election on December 6th, 1998, earning fifty six percent of the popular vote. His campaign advocated for a transparent, just government and appealed largely to the roughly two fifths of the population that lived under the poverty line, making promises for social welfare projects known as Bolivarian missions that would go on to provide housing and free healthcare to the poor. The social programs launched by Chavez served a dual purpose: to ensure that members of Venezuela’s lower classes would have their fundamental needs met while at the same time developing a united base of supporters loyal to Chavez. Video recordings of distribution of food in Venezuela’s barrios, or low income neighborhoods, by Vice Media often show the people distributing the food exalting Chavez and demanding that the recipients of such food “show gratitude” to the current government. These projects developed a loyal base of Chavez supporters known as Chavistas, similar to the political machines found in the United States during the early twentieth century, such as Tammany Hall, where supporters were rewarded for electing a particular candidate to office. In retrospect, the personality cult that developed around Chavez made it increasingly difficult for other parties to successfully win over Chavez supporters. Many government agents emphasized that if beneficiaries of social welfare programs wanted such programs to continue, they would have to vote in favor of Chavez’s administration despite increasing authoritarian measures. While many of Chavez’s initiatives initially appeared to respond to the concerns of a significant portion of the public, the promise of such projects also served as a means for Chavez to justify consolidating power under the guise of advocating for the “will of the people” despite such measures being undemocratic in nature.
Signs of the erosion of democracy in Venezuela appeared at the beginning of Chavez’s term through attacks on the press, which became more frequent as time went on. After a failed coup d’etat in 2002, Chavez instituted a number of restrictions on journalists, including prohibiting media content which “disrespected authorities.” Chavez would continue his crackdown on media outlets critical of the government, most notably the television station Globovision. Such attacks on the press would continue to become more frequent as time passed. Censorship in Venezuela was most clearly seen during the 2014 protests, during which the Venezuelan government blocked the sharing of images of protests on Twitter and revoked the credentials of reporters from foreign media outlets such as CNN. Such constant attacks on the press are a cornerstone of a populist government and highlight the importance of a free press in resisting an increasingly authoritarian government.
Attacks on democracy in Venezuela have also occurred through dramatic changes to the structure of the Venezuelan government and have grown in scale and intensity ever since Maduro assumed office. Two legislatures, the National Assembly of Venezuela and the Constituent Assembly, currently meet at the Capitol in Caracas, but only the Constituent Assembly holds the power to pass legislation. After the opposition, a term referring to a collection of political parties opposed to Chavez’s regime, gained a majority in the National Assembly, the National Assembly began facing increasing opposition from the Supreme Court, filled with judges loyal to Maduro, and began losing powers such as budget oversight. Maduro then formed a new lawmaking body, known as the Constituent Assembly, which was filled with his supporters and intended to rewrite the constitution, but went on to gain the power to pass legislature as well. The CEO of the electronic voting company Smartmatic, Antonio Mugica, acknowledged that during the election of members to the Constituent Assembly, the voting figures that the government claimed differed by up to one million votes from Smartmatic’s figures.
The solution to the political crisis currently faced by Venezuela is not a very clear one, but whatever course of action in order to remedy the damage to the democratic foundations that once existed in the Venezuelan government, will require a unified opposition. Despite the differences in political opinion that exist within the opposition, millions of citizens have spoken out in protests even though there is a growing threat of violence for those that choose to protest. Such a threat was most clearly seen in the 2017 protests that occurred largely in response to Maduro’s desire to establish the aforementioned Constituent Assembly. Such protests led to over one hundred fifty deaths and five thousand arrests, leading to criticism from supranational bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union. Such protests, while they did not lead to immediate structural changes within the government, helped draw international attention to the current socio political crisis that has developed under the Maduro regime. The continued fight for democracy and transparency indicate that while the future of democracy in Venezuela remains uncertain, an active resistance will pave the way for the restoration of a government that is truly by the people for the people.
Alejandro Ortega is a rising first-year in Benjamin Franklin College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.