Category Archives: Venezuela

Mariana Llanos and Detlef Nolte – Brazil, Venezuela, and the Many Faces of Latin American Presidentialism

This is a guest post by Mariana Llanos and Detlef Nolte, both from the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, on their new paper, The Many Faces of Latin American Presidentialism.

In 1990 Juan Linz published an influential article in the Journal of Democracy entitled “The Perils of Presidentialism” in which he did not make many favourable prognoses for the recently established democratic, and presidential, regimes of Latin America. He argued that the instability of presidential regimes was connected to its essential features – that is, the principle of dual legitimacy, according to which both the president and the legislature equally derive their power from the vote of the people, and the fixed mandates for both elected institutions. The fixed term introduced rigidities to the system that made crisis and conflict resolution more difficult, and the direct election of the executive and legislative powers gave both president and congress direct democratic legitimacy, thus inducing inter-institutional struggles and making it unclear which would prevail in the event of lack of majorities and a conflict between the two.

Although Latin American democracy survived, and the problems that Linz attributed to presidentialism turned out to be less pervasive than he had initially thought, they did not disappeared. In effect, since the beginning of 2016 the region has witnessed two major political crises, in Venezuela and Brazil, which despite being extreme are predictable crises within presidential regimes. In these two cases the presidents face an adverse majority in Congress: in Brazil, congress is using the constitutional mechanism of impeachment to oust President Rousseff, while in Venezuela President Maduro is manipulating the rules of the decision-making process to disempower congress and to avoid a recall referendum that would take him out of the presidency.

While presidentialism may be prone to producing political stalemates, political actors are responsible for creating and resolving these stalemates. Brazil and Venezuela represent two different presidential traditions within the region, and the institutional mechanisms being used to solve the current impasse situations differ accordingly. We should bear in mind, though, that crises are profound in these countries and will persist beyond the short-term solutions to stalemate. It appears that the period of fine-weather democracy may be coming to an end and that some of the “perils” and less pleasant traits of presidential democracy may be resurging.

Coalition Presidentialism and Presidential Breakdowns

“Coalition presidentialism” is the consensual Latin American variant of presidentialism that is practiced in Brazil. Under this scheme, the directly elected president serves as a coalitional formateur and uses his/her appointment prerogatives to recruit ministers from other parties in order to foster the emergence of a legislative cartel that could support her/his proposals in congress for overcoming political deadlocks. Alongside the distribution of cabinet posts, presidents use a wide range of agenda-setting powers and pork-barrelling to maintain control of the legislative process.

Coalitions have helped overcome inter-institutional conflicts, but they are demanding for presidents, particularly when they face other challenges. A tough economic situation, scandals, popular discontent, and public mobilisation, expose the weakness of the presidential leadership and may lead to his/her demise. During the third wave of democratization, many presidents have been challenged and 17 presidents have actually been forced to leave before finishing their constitutionally fixed mandates under the pressure of unfavourable majorities in congress and often also of protests in the streets. A few weeks ago, the Brazilian Senate initiated an impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff who is suffering from extremely low popularity as a result of a serious recession, high inflation and unemployment rates, in addition to the Petrobras affair, a corruption scandal that involves her party (the PT) and many others and that has infuriated the public and motivated protests. Due to these events, latent rivalries among coalition members became apparent, leading to a major break between the PT and the main coalition partner, the PMDB, and giving impulse to the impeachment process. The impeachment resembles previous presidential breakdowns where the president had to leave power prematurely. In these solutions to stalemate where congress prevails, the president has to go and the succession line is activated, but democracy persist.

The Autocratic Phase of Presidentialism

The Venezuelan case belongs to another variant of presidentialism, one based on presidential dominance that has a long tradition in Latin America. It is characterized by the exalted status of the presidency, particularly when the presidential party controls the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Presidents may also use their formal powers to either bypass or manipulate the legislative and judicial branches. Presidents prone to unilateral excursions enjoying strong political backing have populated the regional landscape – for instance, as part of the pink tide during the first decade of this century. Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales have exemplified a delegative and hyperpresidential style of government, notwithstanding their participatory discourses.

In Venezuela, the president’s loss of a majority after congressional elections at the end of 2015 has left in evidence the autocratic tendencies of the regime. President Maduro managed that his outgoing majority appointed 13 new judges by blatantly violating the constitution. The new supreme court has since then proved to be a tremendous functional instrument for serving the executive and disempowering the opposing Congress. The latest of several controversial measures was to hold up the constitutionality of the two-month state of emergency that had been rejected by congress and that gave Maduro extra powers to impose tough security measures and to deal with an uneasy social context characterized by food and medicine shortage, the economy shrinking by 8 per cent, and an inflation rate of up to 500 per cent.

The congressional attempts to get approval for a recall referendum, the constitutional mechanism to depose the president, are also being boycotted by the president-controlled electoral judiciary. We understand that the way in which Maduro is prevailing in the conflict with congress has crossed the line in the direction of authoritarianism. This solution to the gridlock closely resembles the autogolpe solutions (such as that in Peru in 1992), where we saw congress unilaterally closed by the executive and the democratic regime break down. It is quite difficult to predict how the political stalemate, the partisan polarisation, and the economic crisis in Venezuela can be overcome. What would the military reaction be if they were asked to intervene?

For a More Sincere Solution to Gridlock

Whether a presidential triumph in case of gridlock may lead to an authoritarian variant of presidentialism, a congressional triumph also entails the risks of leading to more political polarisation. The latter is connected to the fact that impeachment concerns a president’s misconduct or violation of norms while, in the end, it is the size of the presidential majority that determines his/her fate. It would be more honest if impeachments were replaced by votes of non-confidence (by a two-thirds majority): the political debate would be framed less in normative and more in political-programmatic terms. Certainly, the call for earlier elections would be a more embracing solution for critical stalemate situations. We believe that either of these semi-presidential solutions to gridlock, which have often informally prevailed in similar crises during the last thirty years, are preferable to old-style Latin American authoritarian rule.

Mariana Llanos is a lead research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies and head of GIGA’s Accountability and Participation Research Programme.

Detlef Nolte is the vice president of the GIGA, the director of the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, and a professor of political science at the University of Hamburg.

Link to the Article:

Venezuela – Pressure Mounts on President Maduro

The pressure continues to mount for the beleaguered president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. Protests are a recurrent feature of life in Caracas; there are shortages of consumer goods in supermarkets across the country; and inflation is estimated to top 750 per cent this year. To add to his woes, the last legislative election in December saw President Maduro and his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and his electoral coalition, the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), lose their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD). Venezuela’s problems are now compounded by divided government.

As I have discussed on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political shenanigans managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court, which the MUD have accused of being full of Maduro’s supporters, barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election. To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

The opposition however, although they now don’t have the magic two-thirds needed for constitutional reform, are using their healthy majority to good advantage. With Maduro’s approval rating in the low thirties, opposition attacks on his administration are coming thick and fast. Although attempts to cut term limits from six to four years, forcing elections to be held in 2016 were curtailed by the denial of their super-majority, one opposition party, Voluntad Popular, led by incarcerated political leader Leopoldo López, are proposing a constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution (and presumably reverse many of the reforms that gave the current incumbent such political power). At the same time, another opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, is pushing for a revocatory referendum – basically a public vote of confidence in President Maduro and his administration. The opposition however, would need to present 4 million signatures (or 20 per cent of the electorate) to the electoral commission for this referendum to go ahead.

And last week, Congress passed an amnesty law that would allow 77 political prisoners, which have been jailed by the government, to be set free. These would include the highly popular opposition leader, Leopoldo López. The Venezuelan constitution does not grant President Maduro veto power, but presidents are allowed to refer a bill to the Supreme Court, who can rule on the legitimacy of the legislation. So far, in the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of the opposition initiatives.  In this case, an amnesty such as this can be challenged if any of those to be released have breached human rights laws. The opposition argue that this simply would not be realistic.

Executive-legislative relations in Venezuela looks set to only deteriorate.

Venezuela – Opposition Legislators Give Up Seats in Stand-Off

For Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president and the chosen successor of Hugo Chávez, life has been very difficult recently. With shortages of goods in supermarkets across the country, spiraling inflation, protests and a record low oil price, political capital has been hard to generate. President Maduro’s woes were compounded by a very poor electoral result last month for his party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and his electoral coalition, the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), which has resulted in divided government.

In December, elections were held to choose all 167 legislators for the unicameral Venezuelan National Assembly. Voter discontent and somewhat ironically, the shift to a mixed-majoritarian electoral system, allowed the opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), to win a very healthy majority in the house, and overturn the government majority for the first time in seventeen year.[1] The PSUV, penalized by the majoritarianism of the new electoral system, won only 55 of the seats. In contrast, the MUD managed to win 109 of the seats in the house, including the three seats reserved for indigenous representatives.

This gives the MUD the magic supermajority, which would allow them to begin the process of peeling back many of the reforms of the Bolivarian revolution; change the constitution; and appoint new Supreme Court justices. However last Monday, the current Supreme Court, which the MUD have accused of being full of Maduro’s supporters, barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election. These four legislators were to be suspended until an investigation into electoral practices could be conducted.

If these three MUD legislators are unable to take their seats, then the opposition coalition loses their crucial two-thirds supermajority majority, significantly curtailing their ability to dismantle the Bolivarian reforms.

Regardless, on Wednesday of last week, the three opposition members of the Assembly were officially sworn in. On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that any decisions from the Assembly would be overturned, as the house has breached the Constitution by allowing these three legislators to be sworn in. In response, on Tuesday, the National Assembly President, Henry Ramos Allup, was forced to suspend the legislative session as the house lacked the necessary quorum following the refusal of the PSUV to take their seats.

A serious political crisis appeared to be brewing, which would only add to the country’s economic and social woes.

The political stand-off ended yesterday when the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

As it stands, MUD now only has 109 active seats, a 65 per cent majority and just short of the two thirds supermajority. Although an imminent crisis has been averted, I suspect that this will most likely not be the end of conflict between Maduro’s government and the opposition-controlled house.

[1] For a great analysis of the recent elections, which highlights the role of the electoral system change, have a look at John Carey’s Monkey Page post here.

Rut Diamint and Laura Tedesco – Rethinking political leadership in Latin America

This is a guest post by Rut Diamint (Universidad Torcuato Di Tella) and Laura Tedesco (Saint Louis University/Madrid Campus) based on their newly published book, Latin America´s Leaders, available here.

In writing Latin America´s Leaders, we had four objectives: to review the main bibliography on political leadership; to examine the domestic political conditions that impact on the emergence of different types of leaders; to offer a qualitative analysis of interviews with political leaders; and to devise a typology of democratic leaders.

Our research[i] was motivated by questions related to the democratic quality of leaders[ii]. Why do democratically elected leaders undermine democracy as soon as they are in power? Is there any relationship between the features of political party systems and the leaders’ democratic quality? Why has the return to democracy not done away with Latin America’s tendency to generate strong leaders?

We looked at Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay. While all these countries suffered similar political and economic crises during the 2000s, the outcomes were different: five presidents were expelled in Argentina, three in Ecuador, one in Venezuela and none in Uruguay and Colombia. In Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela the crises brought about the fragmentation or collapse of the party system and the emergence of strong leaders. Conversely, in Uruguay the 2002 crisis neither affected the political party system nor became a major systemic crisis; the traditional political parties lost the elections and the Frente Amplio won the presidency for the first time since its creation in 1971. In Colombia, political parties underwent an important transformation following the political reforms in 1991 and the 2003, and political stability with a high degree of institutionalization allowed a strong leader in the form of Álvaro Uribe to come to power – yet these features also helped to control his political ambitions.

We conducted 285 interviews with former Presidents, Vice-Presidents, MPs, mayors and party leaders. The aim of the interviews was to learn how leaders interpret democratic quality and how far they perceive themselves as the architects of democracy.

Our interviewees talked about powerful presidents who concentrate power and, in many cases, usurp power from other institutions. Many presidents in Latin America dis-empower institutions to empower themselves.

The qualitative analysis of the interviews showed two different groups: in Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela the analysis of Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez dominated the interviews while in Uruguay and Colombia our respondents examined political leadership together with the role of political parties, state institutions and historical processes.

One of our conclusions is that the degree of institutionalization of the political party system influences the type of leader that emerges in a given country.[iii] We developed a typology based on three elements: the political context, the ability of the leader to lead and the impact of the leader on the quality of democracy. Cutting across these elements are three dimensions of leadership: the relationship between the leader and the rule of law; the leader’s efforts to achieve consensus or in contrast to provoke polarization; and the leader’s methods to increase power. Our typology highlights leaders’ democratic quality by looking at their attitude to rules (obey, challenge or manipulate) to opposition (polarize, tolerate or build consensus) and to power (share, concentrate or usurp).

Democratic-enhancer Ambivalent Democrat Soft Power Usurper Power Usurper
Rule developer Rule-Obedient Rule-Challenger Rule-Manipulator
Bridge-Builder Receptive Soft Polarizer Polarizer
Respectul Rule-Challenger Power Builder Power Maximizer

Democratic-enhancers include leaders who push for the building or reinforcement of democratic institutions, accept the limits on power imposed by state institutions, respect and promote democratic rights and civil liberties, and leave their posts on time. This type of leader invariably belongs to a political party in which he has developed his career.

The ambivalent democrat respects people’s rights, works in a cooperative manner but seeks to accumulate personal power. Unlike the democratic-enhancer they respect but do not strengthen democratic institutions. The ambivalent democrat can actually end up weakening democracy in his bid to increase his own personal power.

The soft power usurper navigates between challenging and accepting the rule of law and state institutions. The historical context becomes crucial since it can either facilitate or block the leader´s ability to gain autonomy. In crises, this type of politician can take advantage to reduce other institutions’ maneuverability. However, at some point, a brake is applied by his party, the judicial, the legislative power or even societal pressure. The soft power usurper then retreats in the hope of more favorable conditions arising that will enable him to fit the political game to his own personal or collective aims.

Power-usurpers accumulate power by absorbing it from other state institutions, either by minimizing the role of the legislature and/or by undermining the independence of the judiciary. Power-usurpers are democratic leaders who have been elected in free elections. However, some end up manipulating constitutional or electoral instruments to increase personal power, thus worsening the quality of democracy. Power-usurpers believe that they are the only legitimate representatives of their people. Politics becomes embedded in them. They generally aspire to perpetuate themselves in power.

In Uruguay most leaders are democratic enhancers. In Colombia, Álvaro Uribe was a mix of ambivalent democrat and soft power usurper, while Juan Manuel Santos is a democracy-enhancer. In Argentina, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were soft power usurpers. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa combines elements of a power usurper with a soft power usurper. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez was the archetype of a power usurper: he challenged the rules, polarized society and maximized his power.

This typology distinguishes four ideal types that measure leaders’ degree of democraticness. It offers a framework for how leaders´ political influence and democratic quality can be studied in other parts of the world. And it can serve as an instrument to promote democratic-enhancers and avoid the rise of power usurpers.


[i] The research was done between 2009 and 2012 and was financed by Foundation Open Society Institute, Washington DC.

[ii] The quality of democracy has been debated in Guillermo O´Donnell, Jorge Vargas Cullell and Osvaldo Iazzetta (2004) The quality of democracy. Theory and applications (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press) and Pippa Norris (2011) Democratic Deficit. Critical Citizens Revisited (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

[iii] The degree of institutionalization of political parties has been analyzed by Manuel Alcántara (2004) ¿Instituciones o máquinas ideológicas? Origen, programa y organización de los partidos latinoamericanos (Barcelona: Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona); María Matilde Ollier María Matilde (2008) “La institucionalización democrática en el callejón: la inestabilidad presidencial argentina (1999-2003)”, América Latina Hoy, vol. 49, pp. 73-103 and Scott Mainwaring and Timothy Scully (eds.) (1995) Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Rut Diamint is professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Universidad Torcuato di Tella, researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) and a member of the Advisory Committee of Club de Madrid and the UN Secretary General Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters. She has been visiting professor at Columbia University, and has received scholarships from Fulbright, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the PIF programme of the Canadian government, the Tinker Foundation, the UN Commission for Peace Studies and the US Studies Center for US–Mexican Studies, University of California at San Diego.

Laura Tedesco is associate professor of political science at Saint Louis University, Madrid Campus, and at Instituto de Empresa, Madrid. She has received scholarships from the British Council, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and CONICET (Argentina) and grants from the British Academy and the Open Society Institute. She has taught at Universidad de Buenos Aires, FLACSO, the University of Warwick and the University of East Anglia. She has been a consultant for UNICEF and worked as an analyst for FRIDE, Spain.

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.