Since September 11, 2001, the Bush White House has taken a hard rhetorical line against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Its accusations have been numerous, ranging from assertions that Chávez harbors regional hegemonic aspirations to claims that he provides financial and material support to leftist guerrilla organizations in neighboring countries. The administration’s most oft-cited grievances, however, relate to Chávez’s democratic credentials. Washington maintains that the outspoken leader’s “Bolivarian Revolution” has assaulted democratic institutions and that, left to his own proclivities, he will turn one of Latin America’s oldest democracies into a full-force dictatorship.
Ultimately, a close examination of Venezuela’s democratic institutions will reveal that the critiques levied against Chávez by the Bush Administration, while somewhat harsh, could represent justifiable anxiety regarding the future of Venezuelan democracy. What is altogether less clear, however, is where the decay Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” might lead – whether it be Washington’s presumed storyline of Chávez as a Castro-esque dictator, or the rarely considered possibility that Chávez himself will fall, only to bequeath to his country a personalistic constitutional structure upon which it will be difficult to build a viable democratic state.
Regardless of what his most ardent critics may presume to be true, the evidence is certainly not conclusive as to whether Chávez has either the desire or political capital to take advantage of the strongman “loopholes” clearly present within his self-designed constitution. Though the potential for grave abuse exists, one must also give weight to the very real possibility that Chávez will be unseated electorally, leaving in his wake a state incapable of maintaining the unconsolidated, delegative democracy he is in the process of creating.
The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Though most Venezuelans approved Chávez’s Bolivarian Constitution in a 2001 plebiscite, the endorsement does not nullify the presence of undemocratic undertones in both its content and implementation. Its principle features of populism, recentralization of power and presidentialism point to a divergence between the institutions it creates, and those associated with a conventionally pluralistic, liberal democracy. Moreover, its very legitimacy and tenability rely on the unique personal characteristics and political skills of its architect, Hugo Chávez. These ineluctable realities call into question whether the current Venezuelan system is capable of sustaining a truly free and secure democratic state.
The explicit undermining of institutionalized checks and balances within Venezuela’s new Magna Carta exemplifies the overall trend of quasi-authoritarian consolidation of power within the executive. The Chavista-controlled constitutional assembly disbanded the upper house of the legislature – ending the equal representation of states within the central government and reducing from two to one the number of legislative bodies through which presidential initiatives must pass. Moreover, the new institutional structure reduces the remaining house’s power relative to that of the presidency; for example, the National Assembly may grant decree powers to the president, a constitutional feature that Chávez has utilized to both invigorate his social revolution and, more ominously, place sweeping restrictions on the freedom of press. Though decree powers are a prominent feature of other Latin American democracies, Chávez has resorted to law by decree even while he holds majorities within a compliant legislature.
Another salient feature of the Bolivarian Constitution is the lack of independence afforded to those institutions most dependent on autonomy. While the constitution creates a court system as independent as any in the world (virtually all of its functions are overseen by the Supreme Court and its funding is constitutionally guaranteed), the impetus to rid the judiciary of the endemic corruption has led Chávez’s principle advisor, Luis Miquilena, to create the “judicial restructuring commission.” Backed by a popular mandate and implicit support from the legislature, Chávez endowed this group with the unprecedented ability to repopulate the nation’s notoriously corrupt judicial system. Between 2000 and 2003, the commission deemed over 80 percent of all sitting judges “corrupt,” dismissed them, and exercised their unchecked license to appoint replacements.
Since the promulgation of the new constitution, the president and his party have stacked the Supreme Court with supporters and created an extra-constitutional institutional framework that extends presidential power into a realm where many would argue it does not belong. Though a sweeping effort to rid the country of an irrevocably corrupt and dysfunctional institution is both necessary and noble, Chávez’s ability to excuse and appoint justices at all levels of the court system undoubtedly undermines the judiciary’s vital role as an independent, tutelary force.
This type of institutional incongruity underpins the fundamental arguments of those anxious to label Chávez a quasi-authoritarian dictator. Structures governing the executive branch’s range of powers are weak and, while Chávez has an enduring popular mandate that justifies the some of powers he has claimed, such centralization may not ultimately be sustainable – especially should Chávez’s popularity fade.
Extra-Constitutional Centralization of Power
A lingering question among Chavistas and anti-Chavistas alike is how these powers will be utilized once the exigencies of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution no longer warrant such a heavy-handed executive. Unfortunately, Chávez’s conduct – as often pointed out by the State Department – leads one to believe that he will institutionalize the strong executive and, moreover, stretch the boundaries of traditional democracy in order to realize his grandiose vision of a more equitable Venezuela in a unified Latin America.
Chávez’s possible tolerance of democratic decay is apparent in the breakdown of Venezuela’s federal system. Though the constitution intended elected bodies at state, municipal and even neighborhood levels to inherit a significant amount of authority from the central government, appreciable political self-determination amongst localities has yet to be forthcoming. Instead, Chávez has stripped local governments of much of their ability to formulate independent public policy and undone many of the reforms aimed at decentralization initiated by the previous regime. Opponents claim this is an effort by the Chavistas to strip the eight opposition governors (out of 24 total) of the powers that would allow them to mitigate the effects of Chávez’s controversial reforms within their home states. Chávez’s supporters, however, insist that continued centralization is temporary and part of a much broader effort to combat the massive corruption that once defined Venezuelan democracy.
On the other hand, Chávez’s critics also note that since the promulgation of the new constitution there has been a disturbing lack of transparency in the routine financial transfers between the central government and localities. Chávez has utilized ambiguity within constitutional law to avoid disclosing how he manages one of the principle tenets of federalism: fiscal autonomy. His personal control over vast oil rents and the distribution of government services have the possibility of making local governments and individuals overly dependent on Caracas and, more importantly, on Chávez himself. Though allegations regarding the criteria Chávez uses in dispersing rents and tax revenues are wide-ranging and largely unsubstantiated, it is clear that the current system is not only undemocratic, but also signals a further means by which the president can tie the provision of government resources to political loyalty – an accusation often levied by his political opponents.
A Delegative Democracy
Beyond simple centralization, The constitutional changes enacted by Chávez and his followers have institutionalized what modern political scientists describe as a delegative democracy. This term is applied to states in which the executive, once democratically elected, is unencumbered by the horizontal accountability normally brought about by strong, democratic institutions; rather, the president governs as he or she sees fit – limited only by the power relations of the day and the necessity to win a popular mandate from the electorate. Though energetic and nominally democratic, Venezuela’s delegative system, like all delegative systems, will not necessarily serve to stabilize an increasingly polarized and divisive electorate, nor present a hearty challenge to a charismatic leader who would turn a democratic state into dicatorship.
The delegative nature of Chávez’s regime is illustrated by the obviation of checks and balances from the constitution; the lack of independent, democratic institutions; and the centralization of political power in Chávez and the central government. Two additional features of delegative systems, however, suggest that the Venezuelan system ultimately will have difficulty maintaining itself: the reliance on national referenda by the president as the sole form of accountability, and the system’s dependence on Chávez’s unique ability to rally overwhelming popular support.
One of the most important features of a liberal, democratic state is its ability to avoid the tyranny of the majority. Chávez’s delegative democracy, however, with its combination of a strong president, enervated federalism and weakly institutionalized political parties, creates a culture of zero-sum electoral politics, wherein political winners receive a blank check to determine policy and losers are left out of the system altogether. Chávez’s desire to exclude his opposition from the policymaking process stems partly from its recent coup attempt, partly from its history of self-absorption and partly from its lack of concern for the impoverished majority of the population. However, Chávez paints his political opponents with too wide a brush and, while this may be highly effective in facilitating his efforts to rid the country of a corrupt bureaucracy and the endemic inequality, such a system does little to promote the legitimate participation of the ideological minorities who represent the loyal opposition.
The present exclusory political environment is exemplified as much by the centralization of power within the presidency as with the system of referenda elections used to periodically renew the president’s mandate. By centralizing power within the executive, Chávez has been able to ignore – or at least only selectively give audience to – interest groups and civil society organizations. This political environment has undoubtedly led to a boon in the representation of those groups who were previously excluded from influential representative institutions and processes; yet other interests, such as those made up by localities, opposition parties and industrial organizations, have been systematically marginalized in a way that resembles collective punishment.
This unwillingness to involve non-governmental opposition organizations within the democratic process has been widely criticized. Chávez opines that those groups “self-nominated as representatives of civil society are anti-popular” and that they solely speak for “the oligarchical interests in the country.” Though some NGOs (e.g. Súmate) undoubtedly fit this description, the government’s blanket indifference to the interest and opinions of large groups – including the middle class – does not signal either the strengthening of democratic forces within the government or the cultivation of a political environment under which marginalized sectors of society will be willing to function. In other words, as long as the only outlet for individual involvement in government comes from national referenda of the president, there can be little hope of involving minority interests within the democratic process. This, more than any other feature of Chávez’s regime, will prompt the opposition to seek representation the only way it appears to be possible: outside the system.
A final unavoidable reality of Venezuela’s current democratic structure is its overwhelming reliance on Chávez’s unique political and social allegiances for stability. Throughout his eight-year tenure, Chávez has utilized his extraordinary mandate to ensure that ideological comrades control the most influential government agencies – this includes the military, national oil company and important bureaucratic organizations. Should leadership change hands, especially in a manner that is not accepted by all sectors of Venezuelan society, there are serious doubts as to whether a new executive would be able to control the now highly politicized military and bureaucracy. Lest the constitution changes or another charismatic leader rises to prominence, the Venezuelan people may find that the replacement of Chávez and the maintenance of political and economic stability are mutually incompatable goals.
Above all other indicators, true democracy is identifiable by the ability of genuine political opposition to ascend to power peacefully and according to established law. Close analysis of Venezuela’s current political environment, however, demonstrates that the operability of the state is increasingly dependent on the ideology and personal characteristics of one man: Hugo Chávez.
The Bolivarian Revolution undoubtedly represents a highly attractive ideological platform in a country in dire need of political and social change. The jury is still out, however, on whether the nimiety of powers seized by Chávez will empower his people to create a truly free and liberal society, or rather hobble their most basic rights. In a best-case scenario, Chávez will continue to enact social reforms while slowly developing a more efficient and independent institutional structure. Conversely, should such democratic deepening not occur, the current political equilibrium may become unsustainable. While it is in doubt exactly where such democratic decay would lead (or if it will even continue), Latin America should be prepared to respond to the two most likely outcomes: either Chávez’s emergence as a quasi-democratic dictator, or the equally likely outcome that concedes the presidency in the face of waning popular support, leaving in his wake a weak and highly vulnerable, semi-democratic state.