After Hugo Chavez passed the gauntlet to Nicolas Maduro back in 2013 in seemed that Maduro lead the country into an economic collapse; however, the failure of Maduro’s regime was not initiated by him, but rather was a long drawn out process caused by Hugo Chavez.
Unfortunately, its continued persistence is attributed to Maduro’s lack of appropriate response to the crisis as well as an alignment with Venezuela’s elites over the poor.
In order to gain the presidency Chavez used a stance of nationalist populism with Venezuela’s poor as his backer of “the people”. One of the key parts of his nationalist strategy was not only to gain the majority, but it also had little concern for foreign trade. One of the key tenets of nationalists is a decrease of globalization and a dependence on foreign trade, which can be seen in other nationalist leaders such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. In turn, once Chavez came into power, he focused on having the economy that depended on Venezuelan oil, nationalized public services, and cared less if foreign governments had sanctioned him
At the same time, used his nationalist populist backing (the people) as a justification for executive aggrandizement; with the people’s perceived support through voting he was able to accomplish whatever he pleased as long as he kept them happy with social welfare programs backed by an oil dependent economy.
In the short term, after his initial policies were set in place his strategy was successful in reducing that amount of poverty and keeping the support of the poor. In the early 2000s, oil prices were booming which allowed Chavez to invest billions in food subsidies, health care, and education. Specifically to this time, he was trying to rig the economy so that the upcoming election was in his favor and to continue his support from the poor, however in the long term the economy’s dependence on oil due to his nationalist trading policy is what initiated Venezuela’s downfall during Maduro’s presidency.
One year after Maduro took power, oil prices plummeted and he was unable to adjust; high rates of inflation and lack of funding for Venezuela’s welfare programs made basic necessities such as food and medicine inaccessible for the poor. Instead of looking for solutions, Maduro furthered executive aggrandizement and took greater control of the supreme government, replaced Venezuelan legislature with the National Constituent Assembly, and rigged elections by banning opposition leaders from them. These democratic erosions of power have caused for protesting that has been met with police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality has been shown to increase the amount of protesters which has caused Venezuela to spiral further out of control.
In many ways, Maduro is akin to many other authoritarian leaders that function within the parameters of democracy; unfortunately, these have proven difficult to stop and detect as we continue into the 21st century. When I speak of authoritarian leaders I am working with the four tenets created Levitsky and Ziblatt in there book “How democracies die”. In it they create four rules that function as a “litmus test” for whether or not someone is authoritarian:
- When a politician rejects either through words or actions the democratic rules of the game
- When a politician denies the legitimacy of opponents
- When a politician tolerates or encourages violence
- When a politician indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents
And essentially Maduro as met all four of these markers at some point during his presidency whether it be police brutality or rigging of elections.
What has further exacerbated the people is that unlike the charismatic lead Chavez who focused on his kinship with the people, Maduro has actually aligned himself with Venezuela’s elites and has spent time rigging the inflation rate in the favor. While the national exchange rate is 10 Bolivar for every 1 American dollar, only the elites are able to access this rates. The rest of Venezuela would only be able to exchange on the black market where it is approximately 12,000 bolivar for every U.S. Dollar. In turn, elite military generals and political allies of Maduro import food at the 10:1 exchange rate and sell it on the Venezuelan black market for a large profit.
Moves like these are entirely possible under any authoritarian-esque leader functioning under democracy, such as Hugo Chavez. The issue is, like with blatant authoritarian governments, is that corruption, representation, and the interests of the people can or cannot be present depending on the leader. While Hugo Chavez participated in many forms of democratic erosion such as executive aggrandizement and economic rigging in order to win an election, his goal was debatable to help the poor of Venezuela. With many other authoritarian leaders, such as Maduro, their prerogative is to remain in power no matter the cost to the people and this is the real issue with democratic erosion.
Image from “Wikimedia Commons”