Last week, Reuters reported that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said at a news conference that Venezuelan state forces may have committed crimes against humanity and that democratic institutions within the country were eroding.
In response, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein a puppet of the United States as well as “a militant of the fascist Venezuelan right. […] He is a pawn of the State Department who is embedded like a tumor in the human rights system. […] He is a person who has lost all credibility to opine about our country.”
Maduro’s attack on Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein indicates that he is a populist leader and is furthermore indicative of democratic erosion in Venezuela.
Maduro’s attack on Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein indicates he is a populist leader because it is characteristic of populist leaders to publically harangue their enemies while using divisive “us vs them” rhetoric. As Kurt Weyland (a political scientist at University of Texas-Austin) notes, “populist politicians are fond of constantly attacking enemies, at least rhetorically.” This is exactly what Maduro is doing by doing by calling Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein a “tumor.”
Additionally, Weyland notes that populist leaders try to frame issues in “us versus them” terms, or as he puts it, the leader tries to convince the people that he or she “is the star of a drama in which ‘the people’ struggle heroically under the leader’s direction against selfish, corrupt enemies at home and abroad.” By calling Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein both a “pawn” of the US and also a “militant of the fascist Venezuelan right” he is clearly attempting to engage in populist rhetoric, since his words paint Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as both corrupt and an outsider, as Weyland notes populist leaders often do. Thus, Maduro’s language indicates he is a populist leader, or at least engaging in populist tactics.
The use of these populist tactics is indicative of democratic erosion in Venezuela. This is clear in part because Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s speech was meant to censure Venezuelan state violence, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and the UN work as a check upon governments’ ability to act in ways that repress citizens’ voices. By making ad hominem attacks upon Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Maduro is delegitimizing these international institutions which are meant to check his power. Additionally, Weyland notes that this is a common feature of populist leaders: “populist leaders strive to weaken constitutional checks and balances and to subordinate independent agencies to their will. They undermine institutional protections against the abuse of power and seek political hegemony.”
Other theorists also support this claim that Maduro’s attack is indicative of democratic erosion. According to Ellen Lust and David Wagner in “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding” reductions in government accountability is a form of democratic backsliding. One of the key types of accountability they identify is vertical accountability, which is accountability “exercised by non-state actors (citizens, civil associations, the media) on state agents.” While Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cannot directly hold the government of Venezuela accountable for alleged crimes, he is able to indirectly hold the government accountable by notifying Venezuelan citizens and the international community of crimes against humanity which could allow those actors to force change. This means that as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has a relationship with the Venezuelan government which should be an instance of vertical accountability. Thus, Maduro’s attack on him is indicative of democratic backsliding.
Perhaps, one could argue that Maduro’s attack on Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is not just populist rhetoric but rather is justified by factual accuracy. However, this seems slightly ridiculous, given the content of the messages. Maduro’s designations of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein — as someone who is both a pawn of the United States as well as a militant of Venezuela’s fascist far right — appear to be highly contradictory and improbable. Additionally, the fact that Maduro went so far as to call Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein a “tumor” indicates that these statements were not made for the purpose of legitimately critiquing the flaws of an institution, but rather as an attempt to spur an emotional response among supporters and delegitimize an institution which is meant to be holding him accountable.
Additionally, a supporter of Maduro may argue that while Maduro’s words qualify under Lust and Wagner’s definition of democratic backsliding, Maduro’s attack does not indicate democratic erosion because, in the long run, democracy in Venezuela will benefit from this action. And Weyland notes that while Populism is inherently at odds with Democracy, Chavez and other populists frequently claimed that they, despite their occasional undemocratic action, are instituting “a new participatory — and hence qualitatively better — form of democracy.” Lust and Wagner also point out that some actions which appear initially to be democratic backsliding do end up benefiting the state of Democracy in a country in the long run. As they put it: “We need to be open to the possibility that apparent setbacks in democratic practices and institutions may ultimately provide context or catalysts for further democratization.”
Is that what’s happening here? Is Maduro’s attack on the U.N. simply just a small backwards step on a path towards more democracy? This is hard to believe for two reasons. First, it seems hard to believe that attacking the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights and delegitimizing an organization which attempts to save human lives from government abuses will have the long term effect of greater democracy. There just doesn’t appear to be any logical connection between the two. Second, according to the BBC, Maduro has a history of delegitimizing opposition leaders and violently breaking up protests within his country. This goes back for several years. Maduro has little credibility in claiming that this particular attack on the U.N. will in the long run benefit Venezuela’s democracy since he seems to have made little effort in the past to make his country more democratic.
Despite these counter arguments, Maduro’s attack on Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein seems to indicate that he is a populist leader who is undermining the democracy within his country, since his words fit the behavior of a populist candidate and they are a direct attack on groups meant to hold him accountable, an indication of democratic erosion.
Weyland, Kurt. 2013. “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift: The threat from the populist left.” Journal of Democracy
Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter
*Photo by DavidRockDesign, (Pixabay), Creative Commons Zero license.