Category Archives: Venezuela

Venezuela – President Maduro gains Decree Powers until December

Today, Venezuela’s Congress voted to once again delegate decree powers to President Nicolás Maduro. After a two-hour debate and a vote by a show of hands, Congress awarded Maduro special powers to unilaterally legislate in the areas of defense and public spending, a prerogative that Maduro can enjoy until at least December.

The decision by the government controlled Congress to delegate decree power once again to the president was initiated amidst an acrimonious and damaging spat with the United States. Last Monday, the Obama administration leveled sanctions against seven prominent members of the Venezuelan government. In addition, President Obama issued an executive order, which characterized Venezuela as a security threat. Obama launched this offensive due to what the US has called repeated ‘human rights abuses’ and has ordered Venezuela to release all political prisoners, including the high profile opposition leader, Leopoldo López.

This aggression has backfired somewhat on the Obama administration. Leaders across Latin America have condemned US actions and have accused the US of interfering in Latin American sovereignty. Given the checkered history of the US in the region, this is a bad time to be evoking echoes of the Cold War amidst a thawing of relations with Cuba. And in Venezuela, Congress delegated these powers to the president in response to the ‘threat from the United States.’

This is the second time since Maduro has come to office that Congress has delegated such decree power to him. In October 2013, the president asked the National Assembly to pass the “Enabling Law,” a piece of legislation that granted him decree power for 12 months in order to deal with corruption and ‘economic sabotage.’ This gave President Maduro the ability to fast track certain pieces of legislation and to pass others without congressional approval.

Of course, this is not the first time that a Venezuelan President, nor indeed a Latin American president, has requested such ‘delegated powers’ from the legislature. Hugo Chávez was granted the power to rule by decree a total of four times, and used this power to enact nearly 200 legal changes, which allowed him to increase the presence of the state in the national economy. In Argentina in 1989, Carlos Menem was also delegated authority by the legislature to rule by decree in order to address the crippling hyperinflation that was plaguing the economy. Likewise, also in Argentina, Néstor Kirchner was delegated similar authority. This lack of legislative oversight, or horizontal accountability, became so widespread that the famous Argentine political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell (1936-2011), characterized these weakly institutionalized Latin American democracies as ‘delegative democracies.’[1]

It is this use of unilateral decree power with which Latin American presidents have ridden roughshod over national legislatures, which is often associated with the Linzian interpretation of the perils of the presidentialism. In Venezuela of course, these powers are not indicative of a hostile house (or at least not the larger part of it) – rather a subservient one.[2] The actions of the US have only served to reinforce this relationship.

[1] O’Donnell, Guillermo. 1994. “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, 5(1), pp. 55-69. Although in recent years, the analytical utility of this concept has been called into question.

[2] See Cox, Gary and Scott Morgenstern. 2001. “Latin America’s Reactive Assemblies and Proactive Presidents.” Comparative Politics, 33(2), 171-189.

The Weakness of Opposition Parties in Latin American Presidential Systems

This week, Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, became the first sitting Latin American vice-president to be formally charged with corruption. Vice-President Boudou, during the period when he was Minister of the Economy (2009-2011), is accused of helping to illegally halt bankruptcy proceedings by Argentina’s tax bureau against the company Ciccone. This event has occurred in the same week that the Argentine government stated that the next bond payment is all but ‘impossible,’ while the monthly inflation rate runs into double figures.

In Venezuela, the embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, is facing frequent street demonstrations, which have witnessed a sizable number of fatalities, food and energy shortages and rapidly rising prices.

In both countries however, what is puzzling is not necessarily that support for both governing parties remains relatively high, but that opposition parties remain so weak and disorganized. This is particularly puzzling given that the general context in both countries should be particularly auspicious for the opposition. What explains the persistent weakness of opposition parties in some Latin American presidential democracies?

Part of the answer probably lies in the nature of the presidential regime itself. In highly fluid party systems, which lack party organization and structure, opposition party members often drift to the president in search of the budgetary goodies Latin American executives frequently have at their disposal. Néstor Kirchner and the defection of Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) governors and legislators is a case in point (of course, the budgetary prerogatives at the disposal of the executive are also probably endogenous to the weakness of the party system). Part of the answer can also most likely be found in the explanations for competitive authoritarianism.

But I think we need to go back a little further to the period of economic reform in the late 1980s and early 1990s to understand the persistent weakness of opposition parties. Kenneth Roberts, Noam Lupu, Jason Seawright and Jana Morgan have all produced excellent work recently that has explored the collapse of Latin American party systems. We can draw some insights from this work. During the period of economic reform, where traditional left-leaning or populist parties were responsible for economic reform, this has led to the collapse, or at least partial collapse, of the party system (what Kenneth Roberts has called a de-aligning critical juncture). In these instances, this has sounded the electoral death knell of both the traditional right (as the left assumed their policy space), and the traditional left, who became outflanked by populist or radical outsiders that railed against market reform.

These outsiders become the new insiders (in Argentina, it was one faction within the Peronists; in Venezuela it was the Chavistas). The opposition ends up as a mismatch of various parties, many of which have suffered resounding electoral defeats (e.g. COPEI and AD in Venezuela). These parties are organizationally weak and have lost their traditional electoral bases and party machines. In many instances, they are forced to adopt positions that predominantly amount to ‘anti-politics’ as opposed to coherent programmatic policies.

However, this picture is still very rough. What we need is a more systematic investigation of the weakness of opposition parties in Latin American presidential systems.

 

Venezuela – Do the Current Protests Represent a Threat to Maduro’s Presidency?

Since early last week, protests across Venezuela have seen the death of four people; near nightly clashes between students and riot police; and the expulsion of three senior US consular officials, who the government accused of attempting to infiltrate the disaffected student groups. Yesterday, police arrested the main protest leader, Leopoldo López. These protests have caught the attention of media outlets across the world, which have wasted no time in engaging in hyperbole about the instability of the Maduro government. But what does all this mean for Nicolás Maduro, the embattled President of Venezuela? Do these protests really represent a threat to his presidency?

The short answer is (a qualified) no. Of course, this is not to say that the more radical elements of the opposition hope these protests will provide the catalyst for Maduro’s removal. However, in general, the protests can largely be understood within the context of student and middle class discontent with steadily rising prices (a standard theme at this blog) and increasing goods shortages. These protests may represent unhappiness with the Maduro government, flames, which are being energetically fanned by the organized opposition, but Maduro still retains a loyal base of support, and perhaps more importantly, is relatively institutionally secure.

This is not a moot point. Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Collor in Brazil. Even more apposite for the case in point, consider the impeachment of Carlos Andrés Pérez and his removal from office in the wake of  protests across Venezuela in 1992-93, known as the Caracazo. The number of presidents in Latin America who have finished their terms ahead of schedule in the last twenty years, is now well into double digits.

However, although these protests played a role in the downfall of many of these presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive).[1] But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office. For example, the challenge to Ernesto Samper’s presidency in 1995-96 faltered due to his cohesive majority in congress.[2]

Given Maduro can still count on a majority in the assembly and still has recourse to significant presidential powers, unless these protests (which appear to be waning) grow in size and intensity, and induce government legislators to ally with the opposition to mount a legislative challenge, Maduro’s presidency appears safe. This is not to say that the protests have not been without cost. In fact, what these recent events have served to do, particularly given the heavy-handed response of the government, is to erode the legitimacy of the Maduro administration in the eyes of the international media, and to hand the Venezuelan opposition something of a PR coup.


[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

[2] Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

 

Venezuela – Nicolás Maduro Begins the New Year with a Cabinet Reshuffle

For many, the New Year represents an opportunity for change. For Nicolás Maduro, the somewhat embattled President of Venezuela, the beginning of 2014 has ushered in a cabinet reshuffle and a reorganization of the nation’s economic management.

On Wednesday January 15th, Maduro, in his first state of the union speech, addressed the national assembly and presented his annual government report. As part of this speech, Maduro laid out his major initiatives for the year. All in all, these initiatives signaled quite a degree of organizational change in both his government and strategy of economic governance.

To begin, he announced the reorganization of his cabinet. José Khan will become the Minister of Commerce, while the Public Banking Ministry and the Ministry of Finance will be merged. Rodolfo Marco Torres, the current Minister of Public Banking, will assume this new expanded portfolio and replace Nelson Merentes as Finance minister. Although Merentes will now be the head of the Central Bank, many see the appointment of Torres, an army general who was part of Hugo Chávez’s attempted coup of 1992, as a clear indication that Maduro is set upon deepening the socialist revolution begun by his predecessor, given Torres is deemed something of an ideologue in comparison to the more pragmatic Merentes.

As part of the realignment of his economic team, Maduro also announced a series of economic reforms aimed at addressing some of the more serious underlying flaws in the Venezuelan economy. These reforms include a strengthening of government control over the national currency, the bolívar. The Foreign Exchange Administration Commission (Cadivi) is to be disbanded and its responsibilities assumed by the National Foreign Trade Corporation (which will now be run by Alejandro Fleming), while the official exchange rate has been set at 6.3 bolívars to 1 US dollar, for the entirety of 2014. Although this was not the currency devaluation expected by economists, given the widening fiscal deficit, the Financial Times has suggested it represents “devaluation by stealth,” as the foreign exchange auction system (Sicad), where the Central Bank sells US dollars, is to be significantly expanded.

Finally, both to further bolster the government’s reforms, and to combat an inflation rate hovering around 54 per cent, Maduro announced the establishment of a 30 per cent ceiling on profits for all businesses, which will be part of the new Law on Costs and Fair Prices.

However, it isn’t all change in Maduro’s Venezuela. Rafael Ramírez will remain as vice-president of the government’s economic cabinet, energy minister and president of the state-run oil company, PDVSA.

Venezuela – Mixed Result for Maduro and PSUV in Municipal Elections

On Sunday December 8th, Venezuela held local elections for 335 municipalities and two metropolitan districts. These elections were widely touted, at least by the major opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), as a plebiscite on the rule of Nicolás Maduro and public support for the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ The results were not as damning for Maduro and his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) as the opposition might have hoped.  The PSUV and their allies won over 49 per cent of the total vote, with the MUD  (and allies) claiming 43 per cent, and independents accounting for the remaining votes. This means that, according to the latest count from the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), the PSUV now hold power in 196 municipalities, in comparison to 53 municipalities controlled by MUD.[1]

However, this is not to suggest that all is rosy for President Maduro. Although support in the rural strongholds of the PSUV held steadfast, the urban support base of the party has clearly been diluted. The MUD now controls seven of 23 state capitals, including: Maracaibo (Zulia state), Valencia (Carabobo state), Iribarren (Lara state), San Cristóbal (Táchira state), Barinas, the hometown of Hugo Chávez, (Barinas state), and the capital Caracas, where the incumbent mayor, Antonio Ledezma, just held on.

Without a doubt, the erosion of this urban support for the PSUV partly lies in Maduro’s economic woes. Despite his recently passed ‘Enabling Law,’ Maduro has failed to tame inflation, now at 54 per cent. With price controls across the economy doing little to address the problem, diminishing support for the PSUV in the big cities is clearly related to the traditional aversion of the urban middle and (formal sector) working classes in Latin America to price instability.[2]

This election also clearly highlights the continuing polarization of the Venezuelan electorate and political classes. The opposition have raised questions about the extent of electoral malpractice during these elections. Vicente Díaz, a member of the board of CNE, denounced the government abuse of state media to undermine the opposition. The government deny this.

Finally, if the considerable levels of political polarization in Venezuela have any positives, it is probably the increased political participation it drives. Turnout on Sunday was over 59 per cent, a rather impressive figure for municipal elections anywhere.


[1] Up from 46 municipalities in 2008.

[2] See Andy Baker (2010) The Market and the Masses in Latin America: Policy Reform and Consumption in Liberalizing Economies, Cambridge University Press, for an excellent discussion on the importance of inflation for the Latin American electorate.   

Venezuela – Nicolás Maduro Seeks Decree Power from the National Assembly

Last Tuesday October 8th, President Nicolás Maduro asked the National Assembly to pass the “Enabling Law,” a piece of legislation, which would grant him decree power for 12 months in order to deal with corruption and ‘economic sabotage.’ This would give President Maduro the ability to fast track certain pieces of legislation and to pass others without congressional approval.

In a three-hour speech to the National Assembly, Maduro stressed his intention was to use this power to fight corruption within Venezuela, and even within his own party.

The opposition accused Maduro of attempting to increase his own power, and sideline a strengthening opposition. Decree power would most likely be very welcome for Maduro, both in order to sideline potential internal dissent from within his own bloc and to deal with spiraling inflation. In September, inflation peaked at 49.4 per cent, a jump of nearly 25 per cent since Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, died in March. Maduro has struggled to deal with the increasing instability of prices, and this has affected his popularity. Although Maduro has suggested this enabling legislation will allow him to tackle ‘economic sabotage’, there is a lack of concrete specifics regarding what exact policies would be covered by this power.

Of course, this is not the first time that a Venezuelan President, nor indeed a Latin American president, has requested such ‘delegated powers’ from the legislature. Hugo Chávez was granted the power to rule by decree a total of four times, and used this power to enact nearly 200 legal changes, which allowed him to increase the presence of the state in the national economy. In Argentina in 1989, Carlos Menem was also delegated authority by the legislature to rule by decree in order to address the crippling hyperinflation that was plaguing the economy. Likewise, also in Argentina, Néstor Kirchner was delegated similar authority. This lack of legislative oversight, or horizontal accountability, became so widespread that the famous Argentine political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell (1936-2011), characterized these weakly institutionalized Latin American democracies as ‘delegative democracies.’[1]

It remains to be seen whether the assembly will pass the enabling law. Maduro needs 60 per cent of the assembly votes, or 99 seats. Together with his own bloc, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), the Patria Para Todos (PPT) and Chavista-minded independents, Maduro should be able to guarantee 98 seats. He just needs to find one more legislator.

Discussions in the house will begin next week.


[1] O’Donnell, Guillermo. 1994. “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, 5(1), pp. 55-69. Although in recent years, the analytical utility of this concept has been called into question.