On March 13, Venezuelan police arrested former interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres. Torres had been a vocal critic of the current president, Nicolas Maduro, since he was removed from office. This is the latest in a series of arrests of political opponents or critics in the country. The government’s imprisonment of these adversaries is yet another symptom of the worrying democratic backsliding in Venezuela.
What started with the rise to power of the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has only continued with the current administrative. Chavez won the presidency in 1999 and held it until his death in 2013. While initially looking like a promising candidate to lead Venezuela into economic prosperity, his popularity declined as his economic policies proved unsustainable. As public opinion fell, corruption rose, starting the democratic erosion process that would make it possible for the Maduro-led government to retain power through nefarious means.
Before diving into the key issues surrounding Maduro’s presidency, it is necessary to understand the fundamental pillars that drive democracy. Democracy governs off the principles of equality and competition. In an efficient democracy, it is expected that any party or leader with popular support is able to run for election within the government. It is also expected that these groups will have competition, which ensures the fairness of the election. The other aspect of competition is the expected criticism from outside of the prominent party. Since democracy is founded on the belief that every person must be represented in government, the existence of criticism from outside the majority is imperative to the purity of the democracy. The second main pillar of democracy is the existence of fair and free elections. These elections should be accessible for all groups of people and free from any corruption or interference from outside forces or incumbent politicians. These two key components of democracy must remain apparent for a government to maintain its status as a democracy.
With these definitions, it is apparent that Venezuela as a democracy is and has been consistently backsliding into a dictatorial regime. The recent arrest of Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who was charged with an apparent “conspiracy against the constitution” is only the latest in a series of arrests of prominent political opponents or outspoken adversaries of the government. Before Torres’ arrest, former Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz was forced to flee the country in 2017 after the supreme court called for her and her husband’s arrest. She had been recently ousted from the government for opposing the general direction of the government. Ortega claims evidence of “excessive corruption” in the government and has “publicly denounced” the current regime and its actions.
The arrest and exile of these two prominent critics is an undeniable sign of democratic erosion in Venezuela. The two had rights guaranteed under the premise of democracy that protected their criticism of the current regime, yet they were punished for this criticism. This goes back to the earlier definition of democracy, which clearly addresses the role of criticism of the government. In a functioning democracy, this criticism would be heard, and potentially lead to positive change within the country’s institution. In Venezuela however, this backsliding of democracy leads the government to silence its critics and ensure its standing as the leadership of the country. Current President Nicolas Maduro is at the core of this corruption, and by seeking to quell his political opponents and silence general criticism of him and his regime, Maduro aims to solidify his position atop the regime.
The next and perhaps most worrying aspect of this democratic erosion is the absence of fair elections. Maduro and the government have banned several parties from running in the impending election, which takes place May 20th of 2018. Along with the refusal to let several parties run for office, the government has also imprisoned many key opposition leaders, effectively rendering a fair election impossible. The corruption does not stop there, as there is already evidence of rigged ballots as well, similar to the 2013 election that saw Maduro retain his presidency after a blatantly fraudulent election process. Other political parties have called for what is being called an “electoral boycott,” which would only serve to ensure his victory at the next election and guarantee another six years of Maduro and his descent out of democracy.
This absence of fair and free elections is perhaps the most visible aspect of Venezuela’s democratic erosion, and has led to several countries including the United States to impose sanctions on the current regime. The outlook for this next election seems to certainly guarantee the retention of power by the current administration, and no alternative outside of popular revolution seems to be a plausible way to shift the current power structure.
After the March 13 arrest of Miguel Rodriguez Torres, Venezuela seems to be on a fixed path away from democracy and towards dictatorship. This democratic erosion is evident by the absence of basic democratic principles, most notably the ability for competition and the corruption in the current electoral process.