In 1958, Venezuelans managed to overthrow their dictator and began hosting free and fair elections(https://www.cfr.org/timeline/venezuelas-chavez-era). Venezuela became one of those countries that were internationally considered a strong democracy. Their status as a democracy stuck for the latter half of the 20th century. In my democratic erosion class, we describe democracies as having two key indicators, competition for votes and people working towards a common good. Stealth authoritarianism is defined as using democratic institutions to undermine democracy. In this post, I will give many examples of Chavez practicing stealth authoritarianism.
In 1989, the world began to see the first sign of democratic backsliding in Venezuela. After the 1989 election, post-election violence was carried out by ordinary citizens, leaving 300 confirmed dead (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-12593085). Three years later, a military officer and leader of the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement-200 attempted a coup. The military officer was known as Hugo Chavez. The coup failed; Chavez was thrown in prison. While the coup was not immediately successful, Chavez became a political star in Venezuela overnight. Many citizens were tired of the corruption and economic instability provided by the current government. Coming to power through a coup failed. However, he became successful in coming to power by democratic means. When Chavez was released from prison, he ran for president and won the vote in 1998 (https://www.cfr.org/timeline/venezuelas-chavez-era). By 1999, a new constitution was approved. We witness the first glimpse of stealth authoritarianism. The constitutional changes included some to protect democracy and some to diminish it. The Supreme court was initially strengthened and provided with more independence (Human Rights Watch, 2008). But presidential term limits and powers were also increased (https://www.cfr.org/timeline/venezuelas-chavez-era). While some of the changes were slightly controversial, it seemed like the new constitution would overall strengthen democracy. However, much changed after the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002.
By April of 2002, Chavez’s approval ratings were down. However, citizens were infuriated when he fired seven executives from a top oil company. The Venezuelan economy strongly depended on oil and had a long history of autonomy and independence. Three days’ worth of protests and strikes broke out. The events reached a peak when the National Guard opened fire on protestors killing 17. Violence spread throughout the country. The Venezuelan military held Chavez responsible and removed him from power. The new leader attempted to fire the supreme court and national assembly and get rid of the constitution. Doing this caused important military support to drop the government collapsed. Chavez came back into power 48 Encarnación 2002). The Supreme Court decided there was not enough evidence to investigate the four officers suspected of being a part of the coup (Human Rights Watch 2008). Chavez became angry with this verdict. His following actions show his disapproval.
In 2004, Venezuelans witnessed Chavez begin to overstep and push for a less impartial court. Chavez signed court-packing legislation that expanded the court from 20 justices to 32. It also became easier to remove judges without impeachment (Human Rights Watch 2008). Justices could become suspended pending an impeachment vote. The president of the assembly could ignore the impeachment voting leaving the justice suspended indefinitely. Justice appointments could be nullified under certain circumstances. Three justices were removed or resigned from the court (Human Rights Watch 2008). Chavez filled all of the open seats with loyalists. Since the Supreme Court justices decided the appointment and removal of lower court judges, four hundred lower court judges were fired and replaced (Human Rights Watch 2008). These actions established a lack of control and independence of the judicial system. Most judges that attempted to rule against them were removed. The court then became complacent with most of the federal government’s actions, even if this meant the actions were human rights violations. While Chavez did not outright ban free press, he did conduct legislative attacks on the media. He expanded penalties on speech and broadcasting offenses. These offenses can include but are not limited to the defamation of public officials and insult laws (Human Rights Watch 2008). The result of these legislative actions caused most media outlets to self-censor. Chavez also created voter registration laws that reduced the ability of Venezuelan citizens living in Miami to vote. This demographic was known to have strong opposition against Chavez (Human Rights Watch 2008).
In 2007, a constitutional referendum was proposed. Chavez had a few controversial proposals, the most controversial being the abolishment of presidential term limits (Human Rights Watch 2008). The referendum was blocked. Chavez accepts the loss but makes it clear that he would continue to fight. In 2009, a referendum including an amendment to abolish term limits was passed (Human Rights Watch 2008). Chavez, excited about the victory, promises to stay in power for the next decade. Chavez ended up staying in power until he died in 2013 (https://www.cfr.org/timeline/venezuelas-chavez-era). Chavez’s vice president (Nicolas Maduro) then takes over until elections are held. Maduro wins by a narrow victory (https://www.cfr.org/timeline/venezuelas-chavez-era). He stays in power until 2019. While Chavez is currently dead, his legacy of authoritarianism in Venezuela is still very much alive.