A once successful democracy, Venezuela has experienced a sudden economic downturn due in part to the price of oil dropping worldwide, causing a shift at all levels of the country’s government and in turn leading to a seemingly unstoppable case of democratic backsliding.
The successor to Hugo Chavez after his death, Nicolás Maduro assumed the role of President of Venezuela on March 5, 2013, and since the nation’s economic recession, has continued the transition of the nation’s government towards an authoritarian regime by means of executive aggrandizement and concealing the efforts of the opposition, in some cases illegally. As a whole, the backsliding of Venezuela’s democracy appears to be consistent with Seymour Martin Lipset’s theories of democratization, particularly the one revolving around modernization that highlights how an increase in the industrialization, education, urbanization, and general wealth of a nation correlates to an increased democratization within the concerned country. Inversely, should the modernization of a country be reversed, as seen in the economic recession the country has experienced, democracy will also begin to falter. Note that Lipset’s theories of democratization are supported by a correlation between the status of democracy and the nation’s current progress rather than having one of the two cause the other. While it is a common misconception that outside events, such as an economic collapse, lead to a future trajectory for the state of democracy in a country, the response to this event from the government will either accelerate the change in democratization or lessen the effect of the event. In the case of Venezuela, the increased and persistent efforts of using authoritarian measures to hold power have led to an acceleration in the decay of democracy for the country. This indication is more apparent over time as Maduro begins to use various known tactics for staying in power, including executive aggrandizement.
A common method found in backsliding democracies, executive aggrandizement, according to Nancy Bermeo, refers to the removal of checks and balances from within a body of government, usually from a position of power such as Maduro’s. A key example of this in Venezuela can be found in the creation of the Constituent National Assembly in 2017, which primarily consisted of loyalists to the current government. While the organization was originally tasked with creating a new constitution to replace the existing one from 1999, the organization was deemed by Maduro himself to offer the final verdict in regards to the law, completely bypassing the existing National Assembly with members from Maduro’s opposition. This decision by Maduro clearly removes one of the vital checks and balances of the Venezuelan government, presenting one less form for the opposition to take hold of Maduro’s form of government. With the Constituent Notation Assembly in effect, the next presidential election was held in May 2018, a date chosen after the original December 2018 election was rescheduled twice by Maduro. The winner of the election was announced by the newly formed Constituent National Assembly and has since been considered illegitimate by various international organizations as it highlights an unfair election that was only possible due to Maduro’s efforts. While the Constituent National Assembly has since been seen as unconstitutional and even dismantled by 2021, Maduro has continued to utilize other methods in order to retain power, forgoing the utilization of forbearance.
Throughout his time in office, Maduro has utilized the military extensively in order to retain his power as President. This can be found in what is known as “forced disappearances”, otherwise known as the detainment of a person or group of people while the government refuses to provide information about the person’s whereabouts or intentions. These occurrences of “forced disappearances” have repeatedly occurred with people associated with activist groups and parties that pose as opposition to the current government regime as the targets. Once detained, these people are removed from the population and possibly tortured in order to discourage other members of the opposition from speaking or taking action against Maduro. With what are essentially state-sanctioned kidnappings and an impossible election to win, it is clear that Maduro has no intention of allowing the opposition to take hold of the Venezuelan government. However the original National Assembly has elected a President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who has received support from outside, international organizations and in some countries is recognized as the true President of Venezuela, in an effort to restore democracy to one of the most profound democracies in the world. Should Maduro keep control of the Venezuelan government, the country may soon experience a point of no return for restoring its democratic system that will define the future of Venezuela.