The sweeping reforms of Hugo Chávez not only initiated democratic breakdown within Venezuela, but also signaled a rise in opposition against the increasingly authoritarian regime that remains prevalent to this day. Recently, rising violence in Venezuela by the current government against its opposition has made headlines worldwide. What does this mean for Venezuela’s democracy?
Before exploring the use of violence in the democractic breakdown in Venezuela using current examples, it is important to understand the roots of the previously strong democratic state. Democracy in Latin America is relatively nascent and fragile at best. While some countries, such as Costa Rica, have maintained a stable democratic experience, many others have fallen under the grips of popularly elected presidents turned authoritarian leaders through their manipulation of power. Venezuela falls into the latter category, with their democracy starting to backslide with the rise of Hugo Chávez around the turn of the century.
Slip From Democracy
Following a military dictatorship ending around 1958, a series of democratic presidents led Venezuela with high levels of transparency and efficient management of public wealth until the mid 1970s. Much of the economic and political stability can be attributed to the prevalence and revenue gained from the country’s oil reserves. Come the 70s, a significant drop in oil prices caused state officials to misuse public funds, starting a detrimental trend of corruption among the political elite that would undermine the state’s institutions for years to come.
After the public’s frustration with the government bubbled to a boiling point, a certain charismatic, chauvinistic politician promising change and prosperity won the hearts and minds of many Venezuelans. Ascending to the presidency in 1999, Hugo Chávez took advantage of what economic benefits remained from the oil industry by redistributing funds to various social programs. Because of this, he was a popular leader – a leader who also had a thirst for consolidating his own power.
Throughout his four terms as president, he ushered in a wave of undemocratic tendencies through stacking the courts with political allies, restricting the freedoms of the media, and various attempts of executive aggrandizement. His chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, shares his leftist ideologies, but lacks the personal charisma and the economic resources Chávez enjoyed due to a crash in oil prices in 2014. Venezuela has since rapidly descended from the status of fully-fledged democracy to a state plagued by political, economic, and social turmoil.
Now, what exactly is a ‘democratic backslide’? According to political scientists Ellen Lust and David Waldner, “backsliding entails a deterioration of qualities associated with democratic governance within any regime”, particularly as changes in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability. Based on the state’s recent undemocratic behaviors, it is safe to say that Venezuela is experiencing its own democratic backslide. The use of violence by the state as a form of repression is a notable indication that executive power is overstepping its bounds and will serve as a lens through which to observe the breakdown in Venezuela in the following examples.
In a report released by the United Nations Human Rights Council this week, Nicholas Maduro and his government were implicated to have knowingly engaged in a number of “systemic human rights abuses amounting to crimes against humanity – including killings, torture, and sexual violence” since coming to power in 2014. Targets were largely government critics, opposition activists, those suspected to be involved in coup attempts, and criminal suspects “as part of a crackdown on crime aimed at winning popularity before National Assembly elections”. Not only has the media been silenced since Chávez’ sweep of power for fear of government criticism, but now so too have individuals been suppressed by violent means to protect the power of the state.
With the country already trying to handle an economic collapse and a failing healthcare system, the coronavirus – which Maduro deems a national security threat – is further destabilizing the state of the regime. Government officials are labeling those who have come in contact with the virus “bioterrorists” and are forcing them into containment centers and have been detaining doctors and experts who question the president’s policies on the virus. Noncompliance with these measures amounts to outright violence or threats of violence by the police, forcing those opposing into submission.
Police are patrolling the streets to detain people suspected of carrying the virus, and local governments who note an outbreak are threatened with prosecution. The state of the COVID containment centers are abhorrent, complete with crowded rooms, limited necessities like water and food, and abuse. Maduro and his government are using violence to intimidate anyone who may oppose them – openly violating the social contract promoting the protection of the country’s people by the government. Instead, the government is persecuting its people.
So, what comes next?
Elections for the National Assembly are set to be held on the 6th of December this year. A fractured opposition hopes for electoral change to ease the ailing Venezuelan society. Some camps, including the one headed by leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó, are calling for a boycott of the December elections, considering them and thus by extension Maduro’s government, undemocratic. Other opposition leaders have broken with the boycott and seek to campaign for elections for the sake of easing daily suffering by citizens due to the country’s economic turmoil – eerily similar to the rally cry that Chávez and his supporters championed, whose policies arguably set this mess in motion.
As the election day approaches, the international community will undoubtedly be keeping a watchful eye on Maduro, especially following the recent implications by the UN and the state’s response to the pandemic. In an increasingly domineering regime, the use of violence is but one of the ways in which institutions democratic in name are eroding. Whatever the results of the election, we should expect to see great unrest within civil society by means of protests or within Maduro’s current administration by means of more violence and repression. Such uses of violence against the growing opposition that have occurred, are occurring, and will continue to occur in the future will consequently throw Venezuela into a humanitarian crisis, further polarize civil society and the ruling elite, and stress the importance of recognizing democratic backslides elsewhere before they get as violent as they have in states like Venezuela.