Venezuela – Crisis and Electoral Authoritarianism

This is a guest post from Maryhen Jiménez Morales, DPhil Candidate in Political Science at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Univeristy of Oxford. Maryhen’s thesis explores opposition parties and electoral authoritarianism in Latin America.

In the 1990s, Venezuela experienced a total collapse of its political and economic institutions. Poverty, macroeconomic instability, corruption scandals, and the repudiation of political elites, generated a broad discontent among the society. These traits were embodied within the two traditional political parties, AD and COPEI. The result of this dissatisfaction was the election of outsider candidate and former soldier Hugo Chávez, who promised a Bolivarian revolution, towards a socialist country and participatory democracy. Today, after 18 years of Chavismo ruling, the country is experiencing its most tragic collapse yet. Why so?

Comparing regimes has its risks. However, if we want to understand the differences between Venezuela’s first collapse during the 1990s and Venezuela’s current breakdown, we need to first explore the nature of both regimes. The Pact of Punto Fijo, signed in 1958 by Venezuela’s main political parties back then – AD, COPEI and URD –, gave the country political and economic stability. For all its flaws pointed out by recent observers, its stabilizing significance is crucial to note. Over almost four decades, Venezuela’s democracy started to flourish. The economy stabilized over the 60s and 70s, and a stable middle class emerged as a result of new inclusionary policies. The population began to participate in ways they had never done before, and the military was under civilian control. However, in the 1980s, the country’s economy began to crumble as a result of falling oil prices. By the 1990s, poverty, inflation and corruption had risen, and AD and COPEI lost the support they had built up over the past decades. Finally, in 1998, Hugo Chávez, won the presidential elections with the final goal of establishing a new political system that would erase the power of traditional economic elites and strengthen his personal hold on power. Chávez brought an end to Venezuela’s flawed, but working democracy, and replaced it by an electoral authoritarian regime. Here lies the secret of Venezuela’s second and most disastrous collapse.

Promising to generate true participation and real development, Chávez began to transform the political, economic and social sectors. However, the result of his reforms, alongside his mandate, (1999-2013) had one main goal: to ensure his political power. Step by step, he increased the powers of the president, controlled all state institutions, including the judiciary, parliament, and electoral bodies, and began to actively curb the opposition’s performance by disqualifying popular leaders, imposing sanctions, changing electoral rules or cutting their access to material and non-material resources. He replaced the old political elite, with a loyal civilian and military one. On the social level, he increased social spending to create patron-clientelistic networks organized around his radical leftist ideology that could defend and ensure his revolution. To guarantee the project’s continuity, he named Nicolás Maduro as his successor, who, in April 2013, won the elections with a 1% margin.

Ever since, Venezuela has been advancing towards total collapse. Sector after sector has been breaking down. The main motor of Venezuela’s economy, the oil industry, has suffered large mismanagement and corruption scandals, which has resulted in the loss of one million barrels in production since 1999. The government politicized the company by firing 20 thousand skilled and professional workers in 2002 and replacing them by loyal party supporters. Ever since, Chavismo has been packing the company with allies and military members, thus almost quintupling the payroll from 43.000 workers in 2002 to 170.000 in 2016. Today, the lack of professionalism and maintenance of PDVSA’s facilities results in accidents almost every day. In 2012, a pump collapse in Amuay led to one of the world’s worst refinery disasters in decades, causing at the death of 47 people. The tragedy of PDVSA’s maladministration forces Venezuela – the country with the largest proven oil reserves – to import gasoline for its daily consumption. Corruption has also penetrated the electricity sector. As a consequence of PDVSA’s collapse, the electricity lacks access to fuel to run its thermoelectric plants and to generate power. Once again, the lack of maintenance, and the effects of El Niño, are leading the country’s largest hydroelectric dam Guri to its virtual collapse. For Venezuelans, this translates into blackouts for up to 6-8 hours a day. No electricity also means no water for the same amount of time.

The state’s absolute control, and the catastrophically corrupt management of the economy, has caused the world’s highest inflation predicted to surpass the 500% mark this year and staggering the 1600% threshold next year, according to the IMF. Chavismo imposed a multiple tier exchange rate system which has only increased corruption, boosted the size of the black market, and devalued Venezuela’s currency. In today’s black market, Venezuelans get one dollar for 996 bolivars. A year ago, one dollar equaled 258 bolivars. Although the government praises its control over the economy and especially its fixed price policies, the truth is that Venezuelans cannot find regulated goods in the supermarkets anymore. And if they do, they have to queue for hours to buy them. Poverty has reached 75% this year. This adds 25% to the poverty records of the 1990s, which reached around 49% of the population. Continuing with the maths, the basic food basket has increased by 574,8 % over the past year, and by 25,6% from March to April 2016. A Venezuelan household of five people would need at least 22 times a minimum wage to afford it, according to Cendas-FMV. The state is also neglecting basic health care for its population. Chronic shortages of medical supplies, such as antibiotics or intravenous solutions, food and hygiene are common use in Venezuela’s hospitals. Most recently, however, doctors deal with dead newborns almost every day. On May 15 only, seven newborns died as a result of a blackout that caused the shutdown of the respirators in the maternity ward. Chavismo’s dream of public health care for Venezuelans has turned into a nightmare. Waiting lists for treatment are endless and, if patients want to be seen, they will need to bring the required tools and medicines – all goods they may not afford to buy or even find at the chemist’s.

Politically, as the government has lost power, it has increased repression. Since 2014, it brutally dissolved protests, jailed opposition leaders, and vehemently provoked the shutdown of the parliament, which is controlled by the opposition since December 2015. Currently, it is delaying the possibility of a referendum, knowing that it will lose if it takes place. More than 75% of the population wants Maduro to abandon his office, and even the military – an otherwise unconditional ally of the regime- is beginning to question its support. International actors have distanced themselves from Venezuela. Former regional allies, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia or Uruguay have expressed their concerns over the current situation. The OEA, otherwise inactive as to Chávez and Maduro’s regime, activated the democratic charter to investigate the happenings in the country.

How was this all possible during the country’s largest oil bonanza? The answer is not as simple but may bear some leads. The authoritarian nature of the regime has allowed for unlimited control in all state affairs. It is precisely the lack of democraticness and transparency in government spending and further economic activities that has boosted corruption. A small, so-called Bolivarian elite, has disposed over the country’s largest oil income, filling up their pockets, and emptying the state’s treasury.

Although Venezuela is experiencing its largest collapse, some hope for transformation remains. Despite the authoritarian environment, opposition parties have emerged and strengthened their structures. Opponents have understood that only together, they will be able to transition towards democracy. Notwithstanding internal disagreements, a common fact in democratic systems, opposition parties are cooperating under the MUD and have not abandoned the democratic path for political change. Chávez’s populist seduction posed a threat in the past, but it will serve as an important democratic lesson for the future. Venezuela will have to enter a second Pact of Punto Fijo, that leaders ought to keep it place to prevent a third breakdown.

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3ECFF702-EC8C-407F-B32E-324FFDBD549DMaryhen Jiménez Morales is a DPhil student at the Department of Political Science and International Relations. Her research looks at opposition parties in authoritarian regimes in Latin America. She completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Maryhen holds a BA in Political Science from the Goethe University Frankfurt and has worked for the German development cooperation, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington DC.

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