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!”