In March of 2017, the Supreme Court of Venezuela made a decision that served to highlight the bleak future of Democracy for the nation. In their decision, the Supreme Court took over the opposition-led National Assembly, assuming their powers and bringing silence to a large part of opposition forces. Though this decision was soon revoked as a result of international protests and threats of dictatorship expressed toward the nation’s president, Nicolas Maduro, this explicitly anti-democratic move served to highlight what the loyalist government was and is capable of. However, this event is not the first sign of a Democratic backslide and Latin America as a whole is struggling to hold onto its few regimes that are still categorized as “full democracies”.
It is hard to dismiss the undeniable qualities of Venezuela that make it a prime candidate for Democratic erosion- an economy heavily reliant on oil as a point of income, a highly regulated currency, and plenty of self-serving politicians on a quest for power. Once these factors are paired with a deep recession in 2014 due to the drop in global oil prices, Venezuela has since found itself clinging to any remnants of Democracy they may still have. At the center of this erosion is Nicolas Madura, a leader scrambling to maintain power as his country battles through an unprecedented economic crisis. His authoritarian strategies for staying in power are at the forefront of the nation’s Democratic erosion, as he has limited any political opposition by abusing his power and damaging any legitimacy he once had.
Among other forms of opposition suppression, Madura has put political opponents in prison, used lethal force to crack down on street protests, and repeatedly delayed regional government elections as a means to postpone any threats to his party’s power. Lastly and by far the most authoritarian, Madura held a rigged election in which he brought a new legislative body to power and stripped any and all powers away from the National Assembly- the sole branch of government controlled by his opposition.
It is difficult to fully understand Maduro’s actions without looking at his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Chavez entered the political scene of Venezuela as an incredibly charismatic leader who was seamlessly able to transform the political and economic landscape of the nation in one sweep. In the years that he served as president, from 1999 until his death in 2013, Chavez nationalized industries and channeled government money into social programs that radically improved the lives of many. As a result of these changes to the government and its respective groups, unemployment was cut in half, education was elevated to new successes, and the overall quality of life for Venezuelans was improved.
However, it cannot be ignored that Chavez had strong authoritarian tendencies. He restricted the government, particularly opposition politicians, on all fronts. By filling courts with political allies, passing laws and placing restrictions on anyone that threatened his power including journalists and politicians alike. Chavez entered his presidency under the promise of establishing a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution and restore the country in terms of a reduction in poverty and an increase in social inclusion. However, it eventually became evident that this institution was simply a tool to limit the power of any existing political institutions and that it had the power to enact any and all policies that they deemed necessary.
Despite all of this, Chavez still relied on elections to stay in power. His extreme charisma and ability to lead benefited him in that he was able to sway voters to believe that his actions were necessary to maintain the integrity of the nation. So, when Chavez handpicked Maduro to succeed him, he expected Maduro to bring this charisma with him- but this is where he was wrong.
Maduro has since watched as his country has descended into economic turmoil, with 75% of the country’s population losing an average of 19 pounds of body weight between 2015 and 2016 due to food shortages throughout the nation. He has been unable to utilize electoral results to verify his ability to lead as rigged elections have become more and more commonplace within the Venezuelan government. Maduro has essentially used the economic crisis to take hold of vulnerable citizens and strengthen his executive power while making it seem as if the democratic institutions of the government are still intact.
While Chavez undoubtedly set the precedent for charismatic leadership to overshadow authoritarian actions, Maduro has effectively sent Venezuela plummeting towards a bleak anti-democratic future. His ratings have stayed between 17 and 22 percent for years now, and his most recent election was riddled with irregularities such as threats that the government could see exactly who voted. When this is paired with the fact that millions rely on subsidized food distribution to stay alive, it was clear that the populist tactics were targeting the most vulnerable voters to sway polling results. This ties into the overall decline in blatant election-day vote fraud, as the government can get away with threats and unfair targeting of voters without outright interference of the ballots. These manipulative actions highlight the fact that the economic downfall has been the ideal playing field for Maduro to seize power from vulnerable individuals.
With all of this in mind, it becomes evident that Maduro effectively fits into almost all necessary qualities to be considered an authoritarian leader. His fear of opposition and manipulative behavior makes for a bleak future for democracy within Venezuela.
This shift towards a more authoritarian regime does not necessarily mean that all hope is lost for Venezuela, however. As the nation’s economy continues to fluctuate along with the price of oil, there is hope that more prosperous economic conditions may lay foundation for a less authoritarian regime. Along these same lines, the fact that there is not necessarily a cultural consolidation of authoritarianism within Venezuela might suggest that a revolution on the societal front could be a possibility in the near future.
“Venezuela’s democracy is fake, but the government’s latest election win was real”
“Venezuela’s economic crisis is so dire that most people have lost an average of 19 pounds”
“Hugo Chavez’s Constitutional Legacy”
“How did Venezuela change under Hugo Chavez?”
“How Venezuela went from a rich Democracy to a dictatorship on the brink of collapse”