Since 2012, Venezuela’s economic condition has been on a downward spiral and the country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The political climate has worsened as democracy is continually undermined in the regime led by current president Nicolás Maduro. The country has witnessed countless protests in response to the overall turmoil of their country. Gradual changes in democratic institutions and the erosion of checks and balances has resulted in a government that is controlled by the military and led by a president that acts like a dictator.
In the 2017 “fair and “free” election, Nicolás Maduro, the leader of the United Socialist Party, had a massive victory, capturing the votes for 17 of 23 states in Venezuela and winning 54% of the popular vote. However, these results seem doubtful and almost impossible given the fact that since he first came into power in 2013, his approval rate has been in the 17 to 22 percent range.
Maduro came into power in 2013 after the death of his famous predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Chávez was elected in 1999 and as a populist leader he lead the country into an experiment with socialism. During his presidency, he nationalized several industries and funded social programs with huge amounts of government funds. The country’s unemployment rate plummeted by half while the GDP doubled. Poverty and infant mortality substantially decreased, and education rates progressed.
Venezuela’s economic and political position has worsened since Marudo became the president. According to the IMF, the country’s inflation is expected to rise 13,000% and is already the world’s worst. Malnutrition is ravaging through the country and thousands of people are dying of diseases that are easily treatable since there is no access to essential medication. However, the president blames the current economic climate on foreign, evil powers, like the United States. Marudo has also prevented the flow of foreign aid, which would drastically alleviate the crises.
Although Chávez seems to have kept Venezuela in an overall better state, he did have authoritarian tendencies, such as loading the courts with his allies, implementing laws to limit the ability for the press to condemn him, and he regularly pushed to eliminate institutional barriers that restrained his power. Although he had these proclivities, checks to his power were still in place, and he notably viewed the electoral system as a way to ensure his effectiveness as president.
Although he promised to carry on his predecessor’s legacy, it is clear that Maduro is no Chávez. Maduro does not have the same charismatic presence as him, which hinders his ability to connect with the public and gain support for his policies. Compared to Chávez, he actually holds a lot less power within his own government.
The Maduro and the Venezuelan government’s faults can especially be seen in these recent elections. The government openly funded the ruling party, by running countless television ads and using funds to directly support the candidates. However, there is no way to check these clear violations of power because the courts have no capabilities to address the issues of election misconduct. Also, the National Electoral Council, composed of five members with four clearly supporting the ruling party, moved hundreds of polling stations from areas where there was a great presence of support for the opposition. Those supporters, over half a million people, had to quickly figure out where they could vote, which is an example of suppressing their rights.
Furthermore, there were numerous irregularities in voting, where vote-buying, ballot stuffing, violence against voters, and intimidation were in play. The government did not allow reliable international monitors to observe the voting. One crucial factor, is the fact that the government even has access to who exactly voted and supposedly who they voted for. Millions of people depend on the food distribution to stay alive, so their dependence of the government’s subsidized distribution of food could have swayed their votes out of fear.
During the elections, the government placed several well known opposition leaders, like Antonio Ledezma (former mayor of Caracas) and Leopoldo López (former mayor of Chacao) under house arrest before the election, and in January 2018, the Democratic Unity party and the coalition of opposition parties were banned from participating in the election. This is a clear tactic of Maduro’s regime to eliminate some of the competition to guarantee a larger victory. Maduro also pushed the election date forward, making it harder for the opposition to mobilize and prepare.
The opposition party, led by former head of parliament Julio Borges, demanded that Maduro restore the democratic institutions that he has derailed since he took office, including the establishment of a new electoral council that would be free from the command of the “Bolivarian regime”, the reinstatement of banned parties, the release of people imprisoned by the government, and free media.
Although the elections are definitely not free or fair, they are competitive. This was seen through the fact that the opposition won five governorships, including Zulia, which is the most populous state.
In addition to these evident cases of Maduro and the government undermining elections that are supposed to be democratic, Maduro has consistently strived to further militarize his regime. In 2016, Maduro appointed Vladimir Padrino López as both defense minister and tsar for food and the economy, but adjusted the line of command so that all of the other state ministers would have to answer to López. Furthermore, on July 20th of 2017, Maduro started the process of writing a new constitution by selecting delegates, which was a violation of the right to the people to decide whether the country needed a new constitution.
Maduro has replaced members of his administration with people who have military power, trying to increase his power militaristically. He fired Luisa Ortega, former chief prosecutor, and she then urged the International Crime Court to investigate his crimes against humanity. Between 2015 and 2017, there were 8,290 deaths that took place on the request of the government.
In comparing Maduro to other world leaders, his agenda is similar to that of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey, who has also made institutional changes to increase the power of the president, imprisoned his opponents, undermined the courts, and restricted the press and the media.
It has only been a few years since Maduro was elected in 2013, but these long years have been excruciating and devastating for the people of Venezuela. Democracy is on a quick and downward spiral, and the future for the country looks bleak. We will see if Maduro’s faults and blows to democracy can ever be reversed.
Aleem, Zeeshan. “How Venezuela Went from a Rich Democracy to a Dictatorship on the Brink of Collapse.” Vox, Vox, 19 Sept. 2017, www.vox.com.
Buncombe New York, Andrew. “Venezuela’s President Accused of Crimes against Humanity.”
Mora, Antonio. “Democracy Is Dead and Buried in Venezuela.” TheHill, 16 Oct. 2017, thehill.com.
Power cut. “Lights out for Venezuela’s Democracy.” The Economist, 10 Feb. 2018, www.economist.com.
Sabatini, Christopher. “Maduro Has Stopped Torturing Democracy in Venezuela – by Killing It.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com.
The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 16 Nov. 2017, www.independent.co.uk.
Toro, Francisco. “Venezuela’s Democracy Is Fake, but the Government’s Latest Election Win Was Real.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com.
JULIO EDUARDO CHAVEZ
Hi Adja, first of all, great post! I also looked at Venezuela and totally agree with your findings. It was frightening to see the events that completely destroyed Venezuela’s economy and how that affected democracy. With Maduro in power not only has the opposition found it challenging to remove him but the rights of the people have also been cut down. It is also frightening to see the people that Maduro has surrounded himself with. It seems like at this point he will have the power to do what he wishes.
Your insights are on point and you were able to describe how the undermining of electoral and judicial institutions looks like in Venezuela. Maduro has been precipitating the further democratic breakdown of Venezuela through nonchalant and audacious manipulation of electoral procedures and results. Institutional maneuvers have been a “similar process in diverse circumstances” as Lust and Waldner (2017) put it. We have seen Fujimori in 1992 suspending the constitution, dissolving Congress and enervating judicial independence; Mubarak in 1995, although his is already an autocratic Egypt, installed the military in its judicial system and condones the killings of opposition figures, and; Putin in 2005 passed laws to restrict media and restrain political opponents. What these political figures have been doing is setting democratic backsliding and erosion norms that could not only have durable impact onto the future but could as well, in a much higher degree of probability, precipitate democratic breakdown. I appreciate that you presented how Maduro’s reign in Venezuela exemplifies the evils which underpin the very rationale why democracy is encouraged as a system of government. Unbelievable inflation rate, malnutrition and diseases leading to thousands of deaths and economic and social stagnation in general are real, lived and experienced by the Venezuelans.
I agree with your verdict that Maduro is not similar to Chavez. However, I think that it is because Chavez set the precedence for the future, Maduro came and volitionally intensified and worsened Venezuela’s autocratic situation. Venezuelans should be worried of his adamant efforts to dissuade international support and assistance for fear that his regime will be subjected to scrutiny and intervention, thereby threatening his exercise of power. But they should also be wary of attempts to boycott the elections happening in May 2018 especially if it comes from a large oppositional coalition threatening to exclude/boycott the underdog Henri Falcon. Javier Corrales prescribes that the upcoming Venezuelan elections provide the best and most peaceful platform to remove Maduro from office and therefore his hold in power. I agree with that. However in an electoral environment where Maduro controls the shot and can dispense political reprisal, the upcoming election and its outcome will just be a way to “legitimize” his authoritarian rule behind the façade of democratically-held elections. There could be other ways and extra-constitutional alternatives may be feasible but reliance on civil society and international support is necessary to synergize democratizing efforts and pressures.
Your argument seems to draw a chasm between the two most recent presidents in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. Where Chavez was this charismatic figure who kept Venezuela in an overall better state where improvements in education and unemployment could be observed, Maduro on the other hand seems to have halted all the progress because he’s not charismatic and he heavily manipulates the elections in his favor. This gives the impression that while Chavez had his flaws, he was a much better president than Maduro. This narrative omits the one fundamental fact that explains the real chasm between Chavez and Maduro. Chavez oversaw one of the biggest oil booms in history. When Maduro took power the price of oil tanked, on top of that, because Chavez fired thousands of dissident workers at the government run oil company PDVSA, the production of oil significantly decreased. Oil income was the main way Chavez payed the bills of his socialist agenda. Since oil prices decreased and production decreased this means that Maduro now doesn’t have the money to continue to pay for the generous programs Chavez put into place, but those programs were unsustainable from the start because of how heavily they relied on borrowing money from other countries and oil income. In short, Chavez didn’t have to erode democracy to maintain power as much as Maduro did because he had the money to keep people appeased, but Chavez’s unsustainable programs were destined to collapse eventually, they just so happened to fail while Maduro was president. But Maduro and Chavez are one in the same to their commitment to disastrous economic policies as well as their flippancy towards democratic institutions.