With the United States approaching its most contentious election yet, the atmosphere feels like a Latin American déjà vu…
As President Hugo Chavez threatened his opponents on live television the night of December 5th of 2007, Venezuelan college students celebrated their first victory over the incumbent leader. It was the first time the opposition had won an election over the Socialist Party, putting an end to the constitutional referendum that would indefinitely allow the executive to reelect himself. For the first time since 1999, Chavez attacked the electoral result calling it “bull****”, and warned the opposition to “ not celebrate victory yet”, as the military clapped in support. A decade later, President Maduro (Chavez’s handpicked successor) warned that if the opposition were to win elections destroy the Bolivarian revolution, “what couldn’t be done with votes, would be done with guns”. As Venezuela currently faces a humanitarian crisis of the likes of which the Western hemisphere has never witnessed before, the United States just weeks from its presidential election, is shadowing the political instability of what used to be the pillar of democracy in the 20th century.
As the coronavirus pandemic brought the United States to a standstill and the death toll surpasses the 200,000 thresholds, President Trump’s handling of the crisis has been seen as negative by many. Aside from this, the racial injustice protests since the death of George Floyd and rising violence in many U.S cities, have demonstrated Trump’s lack of connection to the sentiment of the people as the situation worsened. However, how does this shadow an authoritarian state like Venezuela? Levitsky and Ziblatt in their book “How Democracies Die” give a broader perspective leading to this point- extreme partisan polarization which has effects on conflicts over race and culture. Levitsky and Ziblatt in addition also studied Chavez’s arrival to power; Venezuela was deeply divided by the alternation of power between elite political parties that had ruled the country since the signing of the Pacto de Punto Fijo in 1958. The United States in a similar fashion has been under the 2 party control of Democrats and Republicans since 1852, alienating any 3rd party candidate’s chance to win any presidential election. Despite the 2-party control, the United States has become the beacon of democracy in the Western hemisphere, pushing for democratic regimes in the region and across the world. But since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a change in narrative from the President, especially when the risk of losing power increases. It’s not rare to see Trump question the reliability of the U.S electoral system when it doesn’t favor his bid. Moreover, Levitsky and Ziblatt outlined in interviews with important political figures in Venezuela how “nobody thought that Mr. Chavez had […] the remotest chance of becoming president”. Looking back at Trump’s 2015 bid for the presidency brings the same feeling, a demagogue that had nearly no chance at winning the White House.
As political outsiders, Trump and Chavez rallied against the ruling elite and focused their campaigns on the people who were forgotten and left behind, those who were angry at the direction the country was going. However, it wasn’t until 2007, 8 years after winning the Presidential election, that Chavez questioned the loss of his referendum, even under his controlled electoral system. Trump on the other hand had left the country in suspense as to whether he would accept the outcome of the 2016 election and told his supporters he would only accept it “if I win”. That narrative remained unchanged and aggravated as 2020 progressed, raising questions about the use of mail-in ballots and the democrat’s potential rigging of the election, with very little evidence.
For autocrats, instilling fear in the population before or after electoral results can sharply affect the political stability of a country in their favor. Chavez raised concerns about the opposition victory to his 2007 referendum, claiming it sought to destabilize the country and exacerbate political tensions. Despite this, he announced that his government would pass the law, regardless of when. The opposition gave little attention to the warnings of Chavez, which two years later by a 54% margin, the approval of the elimination of term limits was a reality. It didn’t take long for Chavez to claim on national television his mandate would last “until 2021 or 2041 if the opposition kept fighting”, which led to persecution and attacks of opposition leaders on an average basis. Voter turnout crumbled in the regional elections of 2010and even lower by 2012 upon Chavez’s reelection. It is important to note that by this time Chavez had complete control over the legislative and judicial branches of government, which allowed him to rule with little restrictions, using his executive power to his advantage.
Within the same context, “Bolivia’s Constitutional Breakdown” written by Fabrice Lehoucq has similar characteristics to Venezuela. After Evo Morales rose to power, his Movement toward Socialism party wanted to “impose” a new constitution, which was approved after internal clashes in the government. The overall result was Morales’ promise to “take power for 500 years”, changing the country’s political landscape, and like Chavez using the judicial branch to reelect himself (despite losing a referendum which prohibited him from running). Truthfully, the United States is not in the same position as Venezuela or Bolivia was a decade ago, Americans didn’t vote to rewrite the constitution to the likes of a political party, nor had a party control all 3 branches of government. If the citizens do not use their constitutional right to protest and uphold the democratic values of this nation, democratic erosion is bound to happen over time. It is important to remember that democracy is based on voting in a fair election where the majority of the people’s will is respected, rather than an electoral dictatorship or competitive authoritarianism, where voting ironically only legitimizes the individual perpetrating himself into power.
While it is realistic to say that Trump will not become the next Chavez, and that the United States will not become Venezuela due to its strong constitutional laws; this doesn’t mean democratic erosion will never occur. Due to the complexity of elections (not having a central electoral authority like Venezuela), and the power of federal judges to stop executive orders, converting the United States into an authoritarian nation seems far from reality. However, with the death of Supreme Court justice Ginsburg and the inevitable nomination of Amy Coney Barret, a republican controlled senate, and a president that questions the veracity of an election and blames his opposition on a potential fraudulent outcome, has led the United States to feel ominously like Chavez’s Venezuela.
*Photo Description & Credit: President Trump with Hugo Chavez’s Eye Symbol, Gianluca Mangione