Since Hugo Chávez’s ascension to power, Venezuelan elites have allowed for, and enabled the country’s descent into authoritarianism.
In September 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) sent two planes of Venezuelan asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) sent buses of migrants to the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. – Vice President Kamala Harris’ home – from their original arrivals to U.S. border states. The instrumentalization of Venezuelan asylum seekers by GOP governors not only objectifies migrants, but also disregards the reasons for which 7 million Venezuelan immigrants have fled their country since 2015.
Until the latter part of the 1980s, Venezuela was one of the most successful countries in South America, with a booming oil economy and a thriving democracy. However, when global oil prices fell, the country’s economy stagnated: a crisis which escalated to populist, and self-proclaimed socialist, Hugo Chávez’s 1992 coup against the democratic government, and his ultimate ascension to the presidency through the 1998 election.
Chávez, and his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, rule by the standards Chávez set out in his original “Bolivarian Revolution” platform, which intends to improve the quality of life for the lower classes, yet in practice utilizes populism to justify authoritarian governance. Instead of redistributing wealth, Chávez altered Venezuelan political institutions through stealth authoritarianism, and created a volatile and oligarchical political culture in which elites continuously form meaningless factions to implement coups that (1) mostly fail and (2) never provide necessary legislative aid to the 90% of Venezuelans who live in abject poverty.
Venezuela demonstrates how power struggles among elites can author not only the destruction of civil society, but also allow for dictatorial leaders to implement authoritarianism in seemingly democratic and legitimate forms.
Throughout their respective articles, “Opposition at the Margins: Strategies Against the Erosion against Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela” by Laura Gamboa, and “When does backsliding lead to breakdown? Uncertainty and opposition strategies in democracy at risk”, by Akyut Öztürk and Matthew Cleary, the authors argue that radical opposition strategies against democratic erosion are less successful at safeguarding democracy than moderate, albeit less definitive actions against authoritarians.
Specifically, Öztürk and Cleary describe radical opposition as military intervention into politics for the means of seeking revolutionary change, which often entails removing the sitting incumbent from office; an approach which Pedro Carmona implemented during his failed 2002 coup against Chávez’s regime. As a high ranking member of the Venezuelan military, Carmona revolted due to Chávez’s nepotist appointments to prominent positions in the PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.), and government agencies.
The 2002 coup exemplifies Chávez-era political participation: power struggles between the old elites and Chávez’s new elite class – created by mass clientelism – the “Bolibourgeoise”. While Chávez loyalists ultimately reinstated their leader a mere 48 hours after the coup occurred, the fact that elite infighting resulted in a temporary regime change – which the Venezuelan people largely didn’t want, given that they democratically elected Chávez – proves that the Chávez regime turned Venezuelan politics into a competitive oligarchy.
Carmona’s coup supposedly intended to “preserve” democracy, however its failure allowed for further erosion and backsliding – a backfiring phenomenon which can be explained through costs of repression. Gamboa argues that moderate intra-institutional calls for change increase the costs for a regime to repress opposition groups, whereas extra-institutional and radical means for change – like Carmona’s coup – upon failure, allows the ruling regime to justify any retaliatory action against dissidents as preserving the status quo, thereby decreasing the opposition’s strength, efficacy and legitimacy.
These lower costs of repression allowed for the Chávez government to implement more extreme changes: a 2009 Constitutional referendum successfully removed term limits from the Presidency, despite public protests from university students and the working class poor alike. Chávez’s success – two years after his 2007 failure for the same measure – can be attributed to the rise in power and influence of his Bolibourgeoise, and a subsequent erosion of civil society. Chávez’s elites dominate the most powerful sectors of business and government, and are thereby able to silence dissent in civil society – a “third sector,” wherein non-governmental groups of citizens advocate for rights within their political system – and have a tranquilizing effect on any grassroots protests.
Chávez’s success at implementing corrupt practices after 2002 proves that he was able to legitimize self-aggrandizement through stealth authoritarianism – wherein autocrats consolidate power through rule of law and other legitimate and seemingly democratic pathways – principally because of radical attempts to unseat him.
The Maduro regime built upon Chávez’s stealth authoritarianism and co-optation of elites by (1) buying all media channels to make them state-run and owned and (2) filling the high ranks of the Judiciary with loyalists and removing the checks and balances it places on the Presidency. Specifically, in 2016, the loyalist Judiciary granted Maduro solitary power to pass budgets through the legislative National Assembly, and declared the whole legislative branch unconstitutional in 2017; dissolving the body, and transferring all of its previous duties to the co-opted Supreme Court. These tactics build upon stealth authoritarianism and consolidate power around a single executive – Maduro – which scholars Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg define as constitutional retrogression.
Strategies like constitutional retrogression and stealth authoritarianism are not unique to Venezuela: Senegal and Colombia experienced similar threats to democracy. However, in Colombia and Senegal, civil society took moderate action against perceived threats; characterized in Senegal by a defeat of proposed constitutional changes, and in Colombia by internal legal and legislative actions against President Uribe’s proposed referendums.
Unfortunately, these two countries’ successes in staving off democratic erosion was impossible to achieve in Venezuela, because Chávez’s first initiative as President was to create a completely new Constitution – affectionately termed the 1999 “Bolivarian Constitution” by loyalists – which continues to define Venezuelan political institutions to this day. This Constitution consolidated Chávez’s domestic authority, and alongside his original popularity, and mass clientelism, never allowed for civil society or other opposition forces to envision change through moderate, institutional means.
In their book, How Democracies Die, scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that elites act as the primary gatekeepers to prevent autocrats from holding political influence in societies. However, modern Venezuelan politics proves this theory to be fallacious; showcasing that elites are rather the first pillar of civil society to embrace corruption and greed. Moving forward, political theory and real world societies and institutions alike must be reconstructed to balance power more equitably between the elites and democratic populous, and shift away from bourgeois rhetoric which ignores the fact that authoritarianism often arises from aristocrats in political positions of power.