In a time where rights, freedom, and democracy are being threatened across Western democracies, it’s imperative to ask the question: why are democracies failing? However, in focusing on the Democracies of the West – the developing nations – we remain silent on the demise of democracy occurring in Latin America. Let’s look at the case of Venezuela, for example.
In 1947, Venezuela elected Rómulo Gallegos – a member of the Acción Democrática Party (Democratic Reform Party) – as their President in the 1947 Presidential Elections. During his brief nine-months in the presidency, Gallegos’ administration had increased taxing oil profits, placed efforts in expanding public education, and tried reducing military spending. However, in having these ideals, Gallegos excluded part of the elitist population in Venezuela: the military. This led to his removal by a coup d’état controlled by army officers Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, Marcos Pérez Jiménez and Luis Felipe Llovera Páez.
In the first few years of the coup d’état rule, Carlos Delgado Chalbaud had control over the coup, but after being assassinated, Marco Pérez Jiménez became the dictator of Venezuela up until his fall in 1958. During his dictatorship from 1952-1958, involved under his control was an election rigging where Pérez Jiménez declared himself President after seeing his opposition party – Acción Democrática – winning in the polls, spent money on infrastructure and projects of grandeur such as an officer’s club, and jailed his opposition: including students and priests.
By the end of 1957, civilians and the military were in the works of an uprising to overthrow Pérez Jiménez. The military officers had organized a plan to drop bombs and revolt against Pérez Jiménez, but despite their failed efforts to overthrow him, it did cause one monumental effect: Pérez Jiménez began fearing for his political survival. As civilians and the military grew in strength and numbers – Marco Pérez Jiménez – dreadful of the people and the resistance, fled Venezuela with one item in hand: the money he stole from the people.
The year 1958 became the transitioning period of Venezuela back into a democracy.
Nevertheless, sixty years later, Venezuela is yet again a reflection of democratic erosion. But before we continue, we have to define democratic erosion. Democratic erosion is the decline in democracy in a country – this can happen through democratic backsliding, populist politicians elected into office, decline in the rules of commitment to law, or the loss of faith in the electoral and economic system.
But how did Venezuela turn into 1958 after civilians and the military had overthrown the former dictator? It all went awry for Venezuela in 1992 when leftist military officers led by a man named Hugo Chávez attempted a coup. Hugo Chávez and his camaraderie were spreading anti-establishment messages – who despite being imprisoned as a result, garnered the attention of the people.
In 1998, Hugo Chávez ran for President, using the leftist populist belief that he was going to bring politics back to the people. He was anti-corruption and pro-employment. It worked – Chávez won the presidency.
Under Chávez’s populist presidency, he wanted to dismantle corruption and implement social programs that benefitted the poor, which profited him by gaining the support of these low-income communities. But come 2000, the populist President began radicalizing Venezuela discretely through a new constitution that allowed for unlimited re-election, lack of transparency in money being allocated to his promised social programs, and ultimately, the systemic corruption he began implementing in the Electoral Council and the mismanagement and displacement of petroleum money.
Hugo Chávez’s revolution was meant to aid Venezuelan’s, but his populist power-hungry self led them [Venezuelans] to the beginning of the decline in democracy.
By his death in 2013, Venezuela was suffering from severe inflation and food shortages, leaving those he had promised better lives worse off. However, despite his death, Chávez’s reign lives through his successor: Nicolás Maduro.
When Maduro took office, inflation was already terrible in Venezuela, but in printing excessive amounts of money, it ultimately destroyed Venezuela’s economy. Consequently, by 2015, the lack of food and supplies available to citizen’s left them with the alternative: black-markets. Venezuela was in chaos and in order to solve this issue, Maduro began implementing police and army units into these communities. Instead of solving the “problem,” citizens began dying at the hands of the government.
It’s 2018 and Venezuela’s democracy has been a prime example of democratic erosion: one that has more to do with the people in power, rather than the [democratic] institutions in place.
Nancy Bermeo, a professor at Princeton and Harvard, stated “Democracies don’t fall apart – they’re taken apart,” in a discussion on democracy at Yale. But how does this look like in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro? Simple. Under Maduro’s Presidency, the rules of commitment to law have decreased and the loss of faith in the electoral and economic system have been the effects of his governance.
As President, Nicolás Maduro has frolicked with the rules of commitment to law by manipulating certain institutions in his favor. For example, the Supreme Court banned Maduro’s opposing coalition from registering in the 2018 Presidential Elections. Not only that, but in order to hold on to the presidency for a second-term, Nicolás Maduro made the decision to move the 2018 Presidential elections to the end of April – months earlier than anticipated. Additionally, he’s jailed multiple opposing and defying politicians, and has even sent prominent leaders into exile.
The actions of Nicolás Maduro are reflected in the loss of faith in the electoral and economic system that Venezuelans once had. In imprisoning leaders, barring opposing parties from running and in changing the election date, Venezuelans feel that the electoral system has been rigged. They no longer have a voice or a say in who can run to represent them. This is part of the democratic process that has failed not because of the system, but because of the actions Maduro – and those taken by Chávez – have caused in rigging and buying votes. Consequently, with his irresponsible increase in money printing, rise of military intervention in communities, and the sell-off of food boxes in exchange for votes, not only has Maduro tarnished the electoral system, he is also at fault for the failed economic system.
Conclusively, Venezuela was once an example of emerging democratic and economic wealth in Latin America. However, in these cases of democratic erosion, the entities at fault are not the institutions, they’re the people serving in positions of power.
Nicolás Maduros’ legacy in Venezuela will remain as the dictator who couldn’t.
As is evident in Venezuela and Western and Latin American democracies, ¡Viva la corrupción, la libertad, y la Democracia! — Long Live Corruption, Liberty, and Democracy!
*Photo by Celina Avalos, “¡Viva la corrupción, la libertad, y la Democracia!”
BLAKE CHRISTIAN KAZARIAN
I agree that it’s incredibly important to pay attention to areas besides the western world for democracy. Latin America is heavily reliant on the U.S. for trade and after all the influence the U.S. has had over the development of many Latin American countries, one would expect them to be fairly democratic. But the widespread corruption of S.A. and the way that the world ignores it let corruption become a part of the culture of many Latin American nations. I think the key to increasing rates of democracy in Latin America is better education systems for the people, but with the way that many of the leaders rule, I’m not that hopeful for the future. In Maduro’s case, though, I expect the failing economy to result in him being taken out of power and likely replaced by a military leader. Hopefully that’ll lead to the citizenry being better off.
FLOR ARIDEY FIGUEROA
After analyzing the different factors that can cause a democracy to fail, do you believe that institutions or policial actors ultimately determine the outcome of a democracy? Do political actors have a greater influences, and in what ways do they further propel the fall and decline of Democracy. Or could we say that policial institutions long established have set us up for failure?
ABIGAIL ELIZABETH VALDEZ
I really enjoyed reading your post. I find the phrase “¡Viva la corrupción, la libertad, y la Democracia!” quite ironic given that in most cases when people say “viva” anything they usually refer to something positive but in this case corruption is clearly not something to feel patriotic about. Venezula’s case sounds quite similar to what is happening in Cambodia right now. Hun Sen, their prime minister, has also dissolved his opposition and their supreme court has also prohibited the participation of his opposition in politics. Both Venezuela and Cambodia are on their way to an authoritarian regime.
PATRICK MICHAEL FRENCH
I enjoyed reading your post. I completely agree with the point you are making regarding our overlook of Latin American democracies. Like you mentioned in your post, democratic backsliding is a big part Venezuela’s past. The recent move away from democracy began when Hugo Chavez took over in the 90’s. Venezuela has slowly been sliding away from democracy for years but only recently captured the attention of the western world. I agree with you and think that Maduro’s call to push forward the elections is one of the biggest slips of democracy in the West. His abuse of power and disregard for the democratic systems cannot go unchecked and I think it is up to the international community to save democracy in Venezuela.
KATHERINE JULIANNE CLEMENT
I also did my report on Venezuela and I love the way you approached this topic! One of the main points that stood out to me was your quote on the fact that “Democracy does not fall apart, it is taken apart”- and I think Venezuela is a prime example of this quote in action. Both the readings from class and lecture highlighted the importance of the 3 factors that must be in place for a democracy to survive, with one of them being that it must be a cultural norm in which civilians agree that democracy is the best way for the country to run. I would say that Venezuela definitely had and still has this factor in place, power was just put in the hands of someone capable of systematically dismantling the democratic institutions that were once in place. Both Chavez and Maduro, the current president, took advantage of a civilian crisis and seized power from anywhere they could find it. You did a really good job highlight Maduro’s inability to serve as the country’s leader and I wholeheartedly agree that he is to blame for the fall of democracy in Venezuela.
AGUSTIN ARREOLA LEON
Thank you for sharing Celina, I think it is important to note that the imprisonment of Nicolas Maduro’s enemies and the silencing of his opposition have also led to democratic erosion of Venezuela. To secure his dominance over Venezuela Maduro’s has been adept at doing such things, and in the process has neglected his people and the well being of his nation.