Venezuelan democracy is experiencing a complex crisis in which the legitimacy of the political system and the economic model are at a cliff’s edge, creating a situation with few solutions in sight. This two-dimensional crisis has consequences on multiple levels for political representation, participation of social movements, and the exercise of the right of equality before the law. In this article I present some historical dimensions to this political crisis.
In 1999 Venezuela inaugurated a new democratic constitution, perhaps one of the most inspiring political models of the last 50 years in Latin America: Participatory Democracy. Previously, popular participation had been marginalized in the 1961 Representative Liberal Constitution. Once Chávez won the Presidential elections in 1998 and proposed that the Constituent Assembly ‘re-establish’ Venezuelan democracy, his popularity was guaranteed. It is important to note that the 1999 Constitution and its Participatory Democracy model never privileged ‘real socialism’ as an economic and political model. However, the operationalization of Participatory Democracy never actually took place. By the end of 2012, few laws1 had been passed to give substance to this democratic model.
In 2007, after two unsuccessful coup attempts (2002 and 2003), two presidential election wins (2000 and 2006) and a defeated recall referendum (2004), Chávez proposed a constitutional reform process. The aim was to promulgate the socialist character of the constitution. This referendum was the only electoral process that Chávez lost. The attempt to establish a Communal Socialist State was frustrated by the outcome of this popular election. Despite Chávez’ struggles to lead the model towards a more conventional socialist system, the Venezuelan Constitution remained formally untouchable. From 2007 until the announcement of his illness in June 2011, Chávez attempted to ‘keep the peace in the party’, consolidating even more the centralized style of leadership. As a leader, he left two uncompleted tasks: the institutionalization of the 1999 Participatory Democracy model, and the deconstruction of the Liberal State founded in 1961. These two unfinished tasks created an institutional limbo that paved the way for the authoritarian twist that took place after 2013.
Participatory Democracy thus now seems to be part of a far past
With the death of Chávez in 2013, and the rise of Nicolás Maduro to the Presidency, political forces (into and out of Chavismo) reconfigured themselves, with the military taking an increasingly prominent role. The ruling party founded by Chávez (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV)2 weakened, thus undermining the chances of generating consensus for an economic policy strategy to cope with falling oil rents and oil production. In December 2015, the opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, radically changing its political configuration. The National Assembly should elect the National Electoral Council (CNE), the General Attorney of the Republic (FGR) and the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ). However, to forestall this, the outgoing members of the government, in fast track mode, elected new Justices of the Supreme Court just before the new National Assembly was installed. Thus, the TSJ remained in the hands of the central government and systematically overturned the policies of the new National Assembly.
In February 2016, the Supreme Court authorized the President to move forward and open up the oil sector to international investment. Maduro was also empowered by the Supreme Court to declare a State of Exception and Economic Emergency, violating the constitutional framework.
In March 2017, the Supreme Court declared that the National Assembly was in contempt and transferred its powers to central government. In this way, the Supreme Court became the supreme national body, lending a ‘legal’ gloss to the authoritarian actions of central government.
The present state of democracy in Venezuela is precarious, with few solutions in sight. The legitimacy of the political system depends on the Supreme Court and not on the popular participation and the political representation of interests. Indeed, the Supreme Court plays a central role in the political system, marginalizing social movements and political parties.
Democratic forces in Venezuela are struggling against two authoritarian forces: the ruling militarism and the visible opposition, controlled by conservative forces. This visible opposition seems to have as its unique project the restoration of the 1961 Constitutional framework and the expulsion of ‘Chavismo’. Participatory Democracy thus now seems to be part of a far past, with no discussions into governmental forces or the visible opposition.
Meanwhile, democratic rights are falling behind. It seems that the political system lost its capacity to guarantee civil rights for every citizen at different levels of social and political life. The working class is increasingly economically dependent on central government, a dependence that limits autonomy and alienates the fundamental freedoms of food, health, job or political participation. The exercise of the right of equality before the law depends on being a member of the ruling party. Furthermore, government forces have excluded criticism from their own followers. Several leaders, both within the government and the opposition, have been barred from politics, this time privileging a new emerging class led by the military.
This complex situation has perhaps one solution: building a wide agreement of political and economic coexistence between progressive forces within ‘Chavismo’ and the opposition in order to retake the flags of Participatory Democracy. Indeed, Participatory Democracy is the historically unsolved puzzle that has been pending since 1999. It is impossible to solve this puzzle without a political agreement that includes popular forces. It is time for politicians and social scientists to be part of the people, paying much more attention to the social and economic history of Venezuela.
1 The Organic Law for Potable Water and Waste Service is one of the four laws passed. However, most of the set up policies were Presidential decrees, or voluntary wishes expressed by Chávez during his allocutions in ‘Aló Presidente’ (García Guadilla, María PIlar, 2018).
2 On 5 February 2018, Nicolás Maduro registered a new political party with the National Electoral Council. This new party is called ‘Vamos Venezuela’, and is set up as if it were separate from the PSUV.
ISS PhD researcher, devoted to the study of global oil price cycles and their impact on sustainable development in oil exporting economies.
García Guadilla, María PIlar (2018). Exclusionary Inclusion: Post-Neoliberal Incorporation of Popular Sectors and Social Movements in New Left 21st Century Socialism: the experience of Venezuela.
UNICEF (26th January 2018) www.unicef.org
Political cartoon by Venzuelan artist Rayma Suprani. The cartoon is an allegory of the painting ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya.
Protests April 2017. A wave of protests which ended in July with young protesters either dead or in prison.
New Constitution? The Maduro government called for elections on 31 July 2017 to set up a new National Constituent Assembly, parallel to the National Assembly elected in 2015. This National Constituent Assembly was to draft a new constitution. Little is known about this new national political contract. The Constituent Assembly has ratified the power of a new General Attorney of the Republic and the National Electoral Council.
Dialogue in the Dominican Republic: towards a transition? From October 2016 to February 2018 several meetings were held in the Dominican Republic between the visible opposition, the Government and international mediators. The aim of these talks was to re-establish a political consensus and end political violence. These negotiations have had no positive results, and constitutional order is not yet re-established. On the contrary, it seems these dialogues have further contributed to the delegitimization of both the political forces around Maduro and the opposition. Presidential elections are planned for 20 May 2018 but the visible opposition has decided to call for a boycott, arguing a lack of confidence in transparent and fair electoral processes.
Hyperinflation In 2017, non-official figures indicated that inflation was near 2,616 per cent! For instance, by February 2018, a person earning the minimum wage could buy around 10 per cent of the minimum food basket and 8 per cent of a basic family food basket. A public sector graduate could acquire just 19 per cent of the food basket and 13 per cent of the basic family basket.
Inefficiency in public management Misguided economic policies created profound distortions throughout the whole economy. Exchange rate parity means drastic reductions in foreign currency and a deterioration of the productive sectors, with damaging effects on the ability to import, and crises in production and distribution of medicines and food.
Forced migration The number of people leaving the country is growing. The main reasons for migration are the low wages relative to living costs, and shortages. Unofficial figures estimate that up to 2.5 million people have emigrated in the last 5 years, either to neighbouring Latin American countries or to Europe.
Access to basic goods no longer guaranteed for most Venezuelans There is an increased dependency on direct subsidies through the CLAP, a food box provided by the central government. Other social consequences of the food crisis are malnutrition which is preventing children from attending school (UNICEF 2018).