Chavez and Democracy in Venezuela

September 25, 2007

The ongoing deliberations of an elected Assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela's Constitution (see "Venezuelans Give Chávez Control of Constituent Assembly," p. 45) are creating some anxious moments, especially for members of the country's old political class. The Assembly, in the firm grip of the left-of-center alliance, Patriotic Pole, that brought Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez to the presidency last December, has been mandated by the unorthodox one-time coup plotter to bring about a "revolution" through constitutional reform. Just what Chávez has in mind by "revolution" remains unclear, and the convening of the Assembly has provoked dire predictions regarding the fate not only of Venezuela's two traditionally dominant political parties, but of its 40-year-old constitutional democracy as well.

The bipartisan system which now lies in disarray was put in place 40 years ago by a set of agreements between two of the principal groups that overthrew dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the country's democratic revolution of 1958. The social democratic Democratic Action Party (AD) and the social Christian Copei Party quickly agreed to consolidate a formal democracy, to share institutional power, to establish a mixed economy with social protections, and to ally with the West. This last commitment meant the exclusion from governance of a third group which helped overthrow the dictatorship, the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV). From 1958 on, AD and Copei have dominated the country's political institutions, and while the parties' founders were considered incorruptable, their successors have more often than not yielded to the temptations presented by large oil revenues.

The current foundering of the bipartisan system stems less from its undeniable corruptability than from the fact that it can no longer deliver the goods. This latter failure stems from the country's long economic malaise, set in motion, as throughout Latin America, by the plunging commodity prices—in the Venezuelan case, oil prices—and spiraling interest rates that produced the debt crisis of the 1980s. And as in the rest of Latin America, it was the debt crisis that allowed the creditor institutions—First World governments, banks and multilateral lenders—to impose an export-oriented, market-dominated model that has removed the social protections of the old Pact and plunged the majority of Venezuelans into poverty.

The first major sign of systemic breakdown came on February 27, 1989, following a nation-wide rise in bus fares and then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez's announcement that his government was adopting IMF austerity measures. Spontaneous rioting and looting broke out throughout the country in response to the populist Pérez's "great turnaround." For years, journalists simply wrote the abbreviated date, 27F, to refer to the violent and unexpected street disturbances of 1989, which left hundreds of people dead.

Three years later, in 1992, 4F and 27N became the shorthand expressions for two unsuccessful coup attempts led on February 4 and November 27 by Chávez and his fellow middle-level, "populist" officers. Though these uprisings were quickly put down by the loyal officer corps, they succeeded in slowing down Pérez's privatizing, deregulating reforms.

Serious cracks in the bipartisan hegemony appeared in 1993 when Copei founder Rafael Caldera broke from his party to form a center-left "anti-party" coalition called Convergence, which went on to win the presidency. In that election, AD and Copei pulled a combined vote of under 50%, while two competing heirs of the PCV, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS)—a member of the victorious coalition—and The Radical Cause (La Causa R), fared better than they ever had before.

The coup attempts had allowed Caldera to launch an anti-austerity presidential campaign with a dramatic televised speech from the Senate floor on the day the first coup was subdued, indicting Pérez's hardship-generating reforms for provoking the junior officers' violent opposition. Caldera's victory in 1993 opened just enough cracks in the old bipartisan system for Chávez to break it apart five years later.

But there is another obstacle to democratic reform that may prove to be made of sterner stuff. That is the power of the global financial system to impose its own logic on policies of a nominally national scope. Venezuelans, it must be remembered, voted overwhelmingly for social democracy when they elected AD's Carlos Andrés Pérez to the presidency in 1988, and again when they voted for the anti-neoliberal Convergence alliance headed by Caldera. Caldera held out longer than Pérez, but like his predecessor, finally succumbed to the dictates of "the markets," instructing his planning minister, MAS leader Teodoro Petkoff, to negotiate austerity-based adjustment deals with the IMF from 1996 on.

And now that same democratic electorate has given its support to a comandante who speaks the language of social reform and whose commitment to the trappings of democracy has yet to be fully tested. Whether Hugo Chávez's instincts are democratic or authoritarian, however, is a question of no more transcendance than whether "the markets" will permit any real democratic choice in this long-suffering country.

Fred Rosen is the Publisher of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, democracy, populism

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