on issues in energy, geopolitics and civilization.
Venezuela: Crowding out the opposition
Javier Corrales and
For the past
few years, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez
Frías has enjoyed a favorable political situation at home.
Economic growth, fueled by rising oil prices, has been spectacular
since 2003. Chávez and his allies have won four decisive
electoral victories since 2004, the most recent being his sweeping
63 percent walk to a fresh six-year term in the December 2006
presidential race. And since 2005, the opposition has become
increasingly tame, while street turmoil is on the decline and
seldom results in violence. In addition, Chávez has achieved
complete control of all check-and-balance institutions, including
the unicameral National Assembly, which after the opposition
boycott of the December 2005 elections now contains not a single
opposition legislator. These political advantages would be the
envy of any world leader. And yet, Chávez has been governing
as if Venezuela faces some kind of emergency. He has been
busily concentrating more authority, even receiving a grant
from the National Assembly of “enabling powers” to
rule by presidential decree for eighteen months starting in February
How did a
movement that began in 1998 as a grassroots effort to bring
democracy back to the masses turn into a drive to empower
the executive branch at the expense of every other actor? The
acceleration of authoritarianism in Venezuela cannot be explained
by recourse to functional theories. These theories, which draw
on Guillermo O’Donnell’s famous explanation of the
origins of bureaucratic authoritarianism in 1960s Latin
America, posit that authoritarianism grows out of chronic governability
crises which prompt actors—whether in office or opposition—to
seize and centralize power in order to cope with dire circumstances.1
Prior to 2004, one could argue that Venezuela was suffering
from a governability crisis—albeit one that was likely
at least partly fabricated—and that this crisis might justify
some of Chávez’s increasing concentration of powers.
Since 2004, however, Chávez has had almost no reason to
feel politically threatened or encumbered yet has notoriously
leaped in the direction of authoritarianism.
condition for this leap has been what Nancy Bermeo would call “elite intentions”—that is, the
ideologies of elected politicians as well as their “misreadings” of
the preferences of larger constituencies.2 But motive alone
is not sufficient; means and opportunity are needed as well.
In Chávez’s Venezuela, these have come in the form
of economic resources at the state’s disposal together
with weakened institutions of representation. In addition,
it is crucial to underscore the president’s deliberate
political strategies: his use of polarization, clientelism,
offers of the opportunity to engage in corruption with impunity,
and discrimination in favor of supporters when filling government-controlled
jobs coupled with threats to see to it that foes are fired. A
review of key moments in Venezuela’s transition toward
authoritarianism will make it easier to see how state resources
both tangible and intangible can interact with rising authoritarianism.
New Political Regime
Chávez never tires of proclaiming a commitment to participatory
rather than liberal democracy. He is right that Venezuela is
moving away from liberal democracy, but he is not replacing it
with more participation. Instead, Chávez is creating
what many classical-liberal thinkers feared most: a quasi-tyranny
of the majority. The Chávez regime has emerged as an example
of how leaders can exploit both state resources and the public’s
widespread desire for change to crowd out the opposition,
and, by extension, democracy.
and 2003, the rise of authoritarianism in Venezuela followed
a consistent pattern: The government would target institutions
almost one at a time, attempting to strip each of power in turn.
The opposition would protest, and the government would answer
by becoming more hard-line and exclusionary.3 Starting in
late 2003, this game took a turn as the government wheeled out
a fresh tactic—heavy barrages of state spending aimed
at rewarding loyalists and punishing dissidents. This new
artillery, as we will show, left the opposition disarmed.
Chávez, a former army lieutenant-colonel who had spent
time in jail for leading a 1992 coup attempt, began the process
of regime change with the rewriting of the constitution shortly
after he won his first presidential election in December
1998. He could have started by focusing on the flagging economy,
but instead aimed to rewrite the rules governing relations among
the branches of government in order to make the presidency stronger.
In what is now becoming a trend in the region, Chávez
began 1999 by appealing to voters’ widespread antiparty
feelings and convoking a National Constituent Assembly explicitly
designed to kill the partidocracia (party dominance) that
had characterized Venezuelan politics since the late 1960s.
The weakening of the nonexecutive branches he sold as a means
of “stabbing to death” the “moribund” traditional
parties that were holding onto power within and through those
Chávez’s first conquest was to ensure himself overwhelming
control of the Constituent Assembly. He did this by manipulating
a self-serving system for selecting delegates (elections were
by plurality and took place within districts of varying sizes
at the state level) through a clever nomination strategy that
rationed candidates from his coalition across districts and coordinated
the vote from his supporters using ad-hoc lists (known as “kino
cardboards”) which helped to identify official candidates
with the adequate numbers for each district.
new president’s camp drew only 53 percent of the vote
but wound up with 93 percent of the seats and a free hand to
rewrite the basic law. The predictable result was the most heavily
presidentialist constitution in contemporary Latin America.4
The presidential term went from five to six years, with the possibility
of a single reelection. The president obtained complete discretion
over military promotions with no need for legislative approval.
The Senate was eliminated. The president gained the power to
enact laws and to hold any kind of referendum without support
from the legislature. Public financing for political parties
was banned. The constitution did introduce the possibility of
recalling mayors, governors, or the president, but only
under highly stringent conditions.
dramatically raising both the advantages of holding office
and the costs of being in opposition, this constitution produced
what scholars call a “high-stake power” political
system.5 In such a case, incumbents’ incentives
to share power shrink, as does the opposition’s room
to accept the status quo. The opposition, feeling shut out
and stripped of other means to affect policy, soon begins staging
street protests in hopes of guarding what few bastions it still
Chávez replaced the old party-based system with a new
focus on the presidency. The old system had begun with the 1958
interparty agreement known as the Pact of Punto Fijo. By
the 1970s, the system was well known worldwide as a paradigmatic
example of how such deals can lead to democracy even in unlikely
places. By the 1990s, however, Venezuela had become famous
as a case study of how pacting parties can ossify until voters
reject them in disgust. Chávez exploited this disgust
to weaken legislative powers, after which it became easier for
him to pack the high court and tighten control over the attorney-general,
the comp-troller-general, and the military. The executive branch
also acquired control over the National Electoral Council (CNE),
the body that governs electoral affairs. For the first time
in Venezuela’s democratic history, doubts began to
arise concerning the fairness of electoral rule.6 With the executive
rampant, the next step was to rearrange state-society relations.
The Politics of Polarize and Punish
In 2001, Chávez obtained from the legislature “enabling
powers” to rule by decree in certain policy areas, mostly
having to do with property rights in the hydrocarbon and agricultural
sectors. When he threatened to seek the same sort of control
over public education, broad sectors of society expressed shock
at what seemed a gratuitous power grab. Then they responded
with what amounted to a kind of allergic reaction in the body
politic: Business and labor groups, civil society organizations,
and political parties both old and new began to promote national
protests, including a two-day civil stoppage in December
2001. By 2002, the country was gripped by the worst polarization
that Latin America had seen since the heyday of the Sandinistas
in 1980s Nicaragua.
For two years,
the opposition seemed to have the upper hand. Between 2001 and 2003, the ruling coalition suffered defections
in record numbers (from the cabinet, the legislature, and even
the military). On 11 April 2002, in the midst of one of the most
massive civil protests in Latin America’s history, business
leader Pedro Carmona and a military faction staged a coup that
briefly removed Chávez from power. Carmona swiftly turned
highly punitive against chavistas, dissolved the National Assembly,
and dismissed the elected state governors. His support collapsed
and Chávez returned in less than 48 hours from exile at
an offshore navy base. Although many in the opposition had
abandoned Carmona almost immediately, the episode damaged the
anti-Chávez cause by tarring it with the golpista (coupmaker)
mediation efforts failing and Chávez
refusing to negotiate, the opposition chose as its new tack a
two-month strike by workers and managers from the state oil company,
PDVSA. As oil production dried up, Chávez fired almost
60 percent of PDVSA’s staff and ordered the military to
take over the hydrocarbon industry. The hard times that ensued—GDP
shrank by 17.6 percent in 2003—hurt the president
less than it hurt the strikers, and they blinked first.
then went to Plan C: a recall referendum. This first truly
electoral challenge to Chávez faced a high
hurdle, however, for the 1999 constitution demands that proponents
of recalling a president must first collect valid signatures
from a fifth of all registered voters and then must obtain not
merely a majority but more votes for recall than the incumbent
gained in the previous election. Although the Chávez camp
bombarded the opposition with an array of legal and administrative
obstacles to valid-signature collection, the CNE finally ruled
in March 2004 that the opposition had gathered more than enough,
and that there would be a referendum. This was the administration’s
weakest moment, the closest it came to succumbing. Polls showed
the opposition far ahead. Again, however, the government
did not respond by softening its exclusionary policies. Instead,
it met this new threat from below with that familiar standby
of Latin American politics, vintage populism.
April 2002 coup, Chávez had been relatively
inattentive to social spending, and in fact had dismantled most
of the social programs left behind by the previous administration.
Social spending declined in real terms during the early
Chávez years, and the only social programs that survived
were mainly delegated to the military. But in late 2003, reaping
an oil windfall and facing the prospect of a real electoral
challenge, Chávez launched what on his weekly television
show he liked to call “missions to save the people.” The
deluge of money that he poured out in 2004 (close to 4 percent
of GDP) enabled him to turn his low 2003 approval ratings of
around 45 percent into a 59 percent victory in the August 2004
recall referendum. Dismayed oppositionists claimed fraud, but
international observers from the Organization of American States,
the Carter Center, and the UN Development Programme found no
merit in these charges.
Dumbfounded by the stunning reversal of fortune that Chávez
had engineered in just four months, the opposition went into
a postreferendum coma and barely contested the October 2004
elections for regional office. Chávez’s partisans
took over 21 of the 23 state governments and more than
90 percent of the municipalities. In addition, the administration
packed the Supreme Court with a dozen new judges, each one
an avowed friend of the president’s “Bolivarian
Venezuela switched from a situation of heightened power competition
in 2003 to one of energy asymmetry in 2005:
The regime grew bolder, and the opposition grew more hopeless.
Exhausted and discouraged, opposition leaders greeted revelations
that the government could use the automated voting system
to trace voter identity with a decision to sit out the December
2005 National Assembly elections.
2006, the opposition had virtually capitulated. Every one of
its strategies had failed. Massive mobilizations, labor
strikes, the recall, appeals to the international community,
and electoral participation had produced nothing but waning
power and fewer concessions from the government. The opposition
ran out of options and gas at least in part because in Venezuela,
as in any oil-exporting country in which the state dominates
the petrochemical sector, the government controls the fuel both
literally and figuratively, and can give it to friends while
keeping it away from foes.
recall vote two years earlier, the December 2006 presidential election featured no claims of fraud. The CNE
approved a manual audit of the votes that both local and international
observers regarded as confirming the official results. Chávez
won at least 50 percent in every state, including Zulia, the
home of opposition standard-bearer Manuel Rosales. The election
featured both the highest level of turnout (just under 75 percent)
and the widest margin of victory in Venezuelan history, adding
one more to the string of consecutive elections since 1998 in
which Chávez has broadened his margin among the voters.
Chávez garnered a larger share of the vote in rural states,
in four of the five oil states, and in urban centers such as
the Capital District of Caracas. The one glimmer of hope for
the opposition was the concentration of its vote in just two
parties, Un Nuevo Tiempo and Primero Justicia. This could be
a sign that opposition voters are rethinking their post-1992
tendency to turn away from parties—a trend that has weakened
society’s capacity to hold authoritarianism in check.7
Social Spending and Rising Authoritarianism
Between 1989 and 1998, Venezuelan voters repeatedly turned against
efforts by presidents to concentrate power.8 How did Chávez
manage to prevent this electoral sentiment, so strong in the
1990s, from unseating him in the following decade?
Chávez’s electoral fortunes since
2004, it helps to clarify the symbiotic relationship between
clientelistic spending and declining check-and-balance institutions.
When such institutions lose power amid a growing economy, the
incumbent can raise spending while making it more discretionary.
Opportunities for clientelism expand and with them the votes
that the incumbent commands, while institutions of accountability
suffer more erosion.
is one approach to social spending. Other approaches include:
1) underfunding, 2) cronyism, and 3) spending that is
meant to and actually does benefit the poor (what the World Bank
calls “propoor spending”). 9 Underfunding happens
when governments fail to provide sufficient funds for social
programs. Cronyism consists of social spending that in reality
is mere camouflage for direct subsidies to elites, mostly “friends
and family” of incumbents. Clientelism refers to spending
that, unlike cronyism, is directed toward nonelites, but is nonetheless
offered conditionally: The state expects some kind of political
favor back from the grantee. Finally, pro-poor spending occurs
when aid is offered on grounds of true need and without political
engage in all four types of spending, though proportions
vary across countries, programs, and eras. The key question
is which direction a newly elected administration
takes when it change the inherited proportions.
that the answer depends on the degree of political competition
the strength of domestic checkand-balance institutions
at the relevant time.
TYPES OF SOCIAL SPENDING
NOT CONSTRAINED BY
Cronyism (friends and family)
Political competition refers to the difference in political
force between the incumbent and the opposition. Competition
is relatively weak if the opposition musters few votes, has reduced
access to state office, or has no immediate opportunity to challenge
the government at the polls. Institutional accountability will
be stronger when presidents face constraints from the legislative
branch, whether structural (such as high levels of legislative
authority over budgets) or circumstantial (such as when the opposition
party or coalition controls a legislative chamber). An opposition
that is competitive and in possession of robust accountability
tools will be better able to oversee the administration, and
contain the executive’s temptation to use social policy
self-servingly. All this favors “pro-poor” spending
over “vote-buying” spending.
of these two democratic conditions—competiveness
and accountability—will yield different results in terms
of social spending (see Table). The worst situation for
the poor is low political competition. Incumbents feel no
pressure and thus have no incentive to seek more (or more reliable)
votes through expanded spending. Social spending will remain
sparse and, if institutions of accountability are weak, all too
easily divertible toward cronyism. Heightened competition will
drive incumbents toward the cultivation of wider voter support
and thus promote spending, but with no guarantee that it
will be aimed at helping the poor rather than at helping administration
clients. The best safeguard against clientelism comes from
the other key variable: checks on the arbitrariness of state
pro-poor spending is most likely to occur when both political competition and institutional constraints are
strong. This proposition helps to explain social policy
under Hugo Chávez. The first stage, from the approval
of the new constitution in 1999 to the beginning of the recall
campaign in 2004, represented the political shift from high to
low accountability, leading to underfunding leavened by cronyism.
The second stage saw rising political competition as the opposition
began to focus on the recall referendum. Competition prompted
the executive to spend, and declining accountability allowed
it to spend opportunistically.
It is hard
to estimate the totality of state spending under Chávez,
but the best sign of its magnitude is that, despite the five-fold
oil-priceincrease over the last three years, the accumulated
fiscal deficit reached 2.3 percent of GDP in 2006.10 The government
has created special nontransparent funds, free of legislative
oversight, that are believed to hold more than US$15 billion
from the recent oil windfall. In 2005, the National Assembly
approved a modification of the Central Bank law to create one
such fund by transferring $6 billion from international reserves.
Known as the Development Fund (FONDEN), it is controlled by the
executive branch through the Ministry of Finance rather than
the Central Bank (Venezuela’s Central Bank, like most,
was designed to be relatively insulated from direct executive-branch
influence). There is no information on how or even whether this
money has been used. In February 2006, the National Assembly
approved another transfer of $4 billion from the Central Bank,
and the president announced that PDVSA would transfer $100 million
dollars a week into FONDEN throughout the year, adding another
shows that Chávez has distributed resources
according to different political criteria for different programs,
but clientelism figures heavily in most of them.11 While a
program such as Misión Ribas was influenced by considerations
of poverty relief, it has also been used to “buy votes” at
the municipal level. Clientelism and poverty thus interact
closely. Cash transfers distribute oil income to the very poor—and
also cement support for Chávez. Other programs such
as Barrio Adentro and Mercal spend according to political criteria
as well as demographic considerations, namely, the size of
the population. In these two “mission” programs,
poverty variables have no influence in explaining the distribution
of resources at the state and municipal levels. What matters
are the degrees of administration loyalty that governors and
mayors display, plus the sheer numbers of potential voters
who live in a given area.
The combination of opportunistic social spending and declining
accountability has had decisive political effects. On the one
hand, it leads to favoritism and thus polarization.12 On the
other hand, it creates a state that is virtually impossible to
defeat through voting, since that state can always heavily overmatch
whatever resources the opposition can bring to bear.
state spending is born from democratic pressures (heightened
political competition), but beyond a certain threshold of irregularity,
it begins to undermine democratic institutions, creating a playing
field that is far from level. Spending has given the Venezuelan
government an advantage in competing for votes: The opposition
campaigns with words; the state, with words plus money.
Ambivalent Groups and Intangible State Resources
spending has not been Chávez’s only
tool. Chavismo also relies on two less tangible but equally powerful
instruments. It offers supporters de facto impunity to engage
in corruption, and it practices job discrimination in their
favor while using negative discrimination against those
seen as government foes. These tools are reminiscent of the “inducements
and constraints” typical of traditional Latin American
corporatism.13 Yet there is a difference. In classic corporatism,
organized labor was typically the object of inducements
and constraints; under Chávez and other neopopulists,14
these tools are applied to groups that are not necessarily organized
and that may even be amorphous. In Venezuela, these groups consist
mainly of voters who are neither strongly for nor strongly against
they are called the “ni-nis” (neither-nors).
Since early on, pollsters have found substantial evidence of
their salience. By July 2001, for instance, one reputable poll
was beginning to classify some Venezuelan voters as “repented
chavistas.”15 This category swelled from 14.7 percent
in July 2001 to 32.8 percent in December. Some of these chavistas
became mild opponents of the president, while others remained
mild supporters. As late as 2006, as many as 30 percent of
all those polled were professing themselves to be in either “slight
agreement” or “slight disagreement” with
government policies.16 Thus, even in contexts of polarization,
swing groups are nontrivial and likely to grow in size. Consequently,
even radical leftist governments will still need to learn how
to deal with the ambivalent middle. Impunity from prosecution
and job discrimination have been Chávez’s answers
to the problem.
from prosecution differs from clientelism in that the benefits pass from one strong actor (in this case the state)
to other strong actors (the military, perhaps, or business groups).
Like clientelism, the offer of impunity is an appeal tailored
to reach those who are not strongly aligned. Because strong actors
can wield a veto, not merely over policy but even over the administration’s
very survival, a government in a polarized setting must deploy
significant resources to assuage them.17 Furthermore, in situations
of radicalization it helps to have a mechanism for coopting
military and perhaps also business elites, if only as a shield
against coups. This might explain why in Venezuela there is no
competitive bidding for most government contracts, and why few
individuals close to the government have been jailed for
corruption. Like clientelism, impunity has the effect of making
beneficiaries intensely conservative—that is, it makes
them dread the prospect of a change in government out of worry
that such a change might end their privileges.
both positive and negative, is Chávez’s
other strategy for winning or at least overawing ambivalent groups.
His administration says repeatedly that government jobs,
contracts, and subsidies will go exclusively to supporters.
To make its implied threats of negative job discrimination more
pointed, the administration does all it can to publicize the
notion that it knows people’s voting behavior. The two
best-known examples of this tactic are the Súmate and
Lista Tascón cases. Súmate is a nonprofit organization
that Chávez said had broken the law by receiving a $31,150
grant for voter education from the U.S.based National Endowment
for Democracy.18 This modest sum mattered less to the government
than did Súmate’s heavy involvement in collecting
signatures to make the 2004 recall referendum possible. The Lista
Tascón bears the name of its compiler, chavista legislator
Luis Tascón, and includes voting data on citizens who
signed the recall petition. The list was openly published on
the Internet and was explicitly used to make citizens withdraw
their signatures or else face being fired or denied access
to public contracts and social benefits. The Chávez administration’s
intention is clearly to convey that loyalists can gain and dissenters
lose a great deal, a dual signal meant to reach groups that are
mostly untouched by ideology and polarization.
years in power, the chavista coalition has changed enormously. In 1999, it offered a progressive ideology
that promised to free Venezuela from the stranglehold of the
old parties and repeated economic crises. This agenda
favored change but not radicalism, and drew vast majorities.
Since then, the agenda has turned radical, winning the loyalty
of the extreme left but at the cost of polarization, with a
large cluster of ambivalent groups in the middle, together
with a substantial number of new and old elites. The lavish
use of corruption, impunity, and job discrimination keeps these
groups in Chávez’s camp when it counts, and allows
his government to increase its vote beyond what the extreme
left can deliver by itself.
The oppostion's dilemma
Dealing with an uneven playing field, however daunting, is not
the worst challenge that the opposition faces in electoral contests
where guarantees of fairness are flimsy at best. The opposition
also needs to overcome its internal divisions and, more significantly,
the tendency of its voters to abstain. In preparing for the 2006
presidential campaign, the opposition took significant steps
to correct these problems, but still did not go far enough.
step was to seek internal unity. The race began with three
reputable opposition candidates from varying ideological
backgrounds. The first was Teodoro Petkoff, a 1960s guerrilla
leader who had been planning minister under President Rafael
Caldera in the 1990s and then became editor of the well-regarded
daily newspaper Tal Cual. Petkoff was joined by Julio Borges
of the new Primero Justicia party, which controlled a few municipal
administrations, and Governor Manuel Rosales of Zulia, an oil-producing
state in the west. For a while, it seemed that unity would prove
impossible, and midyear arrived with no agreement as to how a
unity candidate might be chosen. To everyone’s surprise,
the candidates amicably agreed to let opinion polling identify
the strongest candidate. By early August, that was clearly Rosales.
His rivals endorsed him—another surprise that gave the
opposition a boost.
current of abstentionism posed a harder problem. Six months
before the December voting, many in the opposition
(aware of Chávez’s advantages) were still undecided
about whether they would even bother to cast their ballots. The
conditions needed for a fair and transparent contest remained
in doubt. The opposition claimed constitutional and electoral-code
violations including: 1) a lack of independence in the CNE;
2) an electronic voting system open to manipulation; 3) a suspicious
swelling in the ranks of likely pro-Chávez voters after
the unscrutinized issuance of a record number of voter registrations;19
4) a media tilt in favor of the president;20 and 5) the administration’s
breaking of campaign-spending limits set by the CNE
the course of 2006, the government addressed a few of these
complaints. The CNE allowed the Center for Electoral
Assistance and Promotion (CAPEL), a group affiliated with the
Inter-American System of Human Rights, to audit the registration
system. The CNE also allowed a group of Venezuelan universities
to audit voter registration, but the three most prestigious
schools21 disagreed with the CNE’s proposed statistical
methodology and declined to take part. Neither CAPEL nor the
universities’ study found evidence that registration
was rigged, although they confirmed that the system did not
guard against the casting of ballots by unregistered voters
as fully as it might have.
As with voter
registration, reforms regarding the actual voting system were partial. During the runup to the 2005 legislative
elections, analysts had learned that officials could use polling-place
fingerprintidentification machines together with the electronic
voting machines themselves to find out how individuals had
voted. The alarmed opposition asked for manual voting,
but the CNE dismissed this request, arguing that the law
required automated voting. At the last minute, the opposition
withdrew from the race, leaving every seat in the National
Assembly to be filled by pro-Chávez candidates. In preparation
for the 2006 presidential elections, the OAS gave the CNE technical
assistance to reduce the possibility of tracing voting records
through fingerprints, but the opposition pressed for more changes.
The government then agreed to remove the fingerprint machines
from a minority of polling stations, none of which lay in the
most heavily peopled precincts. The opposition claimed
that by keeping fingerprint machines in these key spots, the
government was trying to scare opposition voters away from
of state funding—which was flowing solely
to Chávez— lay foremost in the opposition’s
mind. In response, the CNE agreed to ban public officials from
using official acts for electoral purposes and to limit the daily
amount of televised advertising that each candidate could broadcast.
When it came to enforcement, however, the CNE was a no-show.
In November 2006, for example, PDVSA president Rafael Ramírez
was caught on videotape telling employees to vote for Chávez
because the state-owned company was “red, very red” (roja,
rojita), a reference to the colors of the ruling party. Far from
firing or even reproving Ramírez, Chávez congratulated
him and urged other ministers and officers to repeat the message.
International observers in 2006 criticized the excessive
state spending that was helping Chávez just as they had
in 2005, but in neither case were these complaints of much avail.The
failure to restrain the unaccountable, politically minded spending
machine that Chávez had set up in 2003 meant that the
conditions for fair competition were worse in 2006 than they
had been during the December 2005 National Assembly elections
or the August 2004 recall balloting. Even media access, once
an opposition strong point, had been reversed in the incumbent’s
favor by a wave of cash. The government invested more than
$40 million in upgrading the state-owned television station
and the government news agency, established three more television
stations, acquired more than 145 local radio stations and 75
community newspapers, and created dozens of administration-friendly
prospect of a merely partial reform of the electoral system
faced the opposition with a dilemma. Going along would mean
that many opposition voters would remain dissatisfied, fearful,
and inclined to abstain. Yet rejecting the reforms as insufficient
would lay the opposition open to charges of recalcitrance
and disloyalty and possibly damage its international reputation.
The opposition leadership took a gamble in favor of going along.
But this hurt them with the absentionist antiChávez
forces even as it arguably helped to bolster the opposition’s
appeal in the eyes of the ambivalent. The wisdom of this gamble
will likely remain a topic of debate within opposition ranks
for years to come. Nor, in all likelihood, will this be the
last time that the opposition must make a hard strategic
choice with uncertain results.
Can Stop the Revolution”
Chávez celebrated his 2006 victory by proclaiming that “Nothing
can stop the revolution!” He may well be right. All that
the opposition can do for now is watch him try to build what
he calls “the socialism of the twenty-first century.” His
plan seems to have five parts. The first is full use of his 2007
enabling law to change more than sixty pieces of legislation
without legislative approval. The second is the creation of a “presidential
committee” that will put to referenda such proposals as
allowing the unlimited reelection of incumbents and attaching
even stricter conditions to recall votes. The third is a redrawing
of the administrative and political map to curb the influence
of governors and mayors. The fourth is a renewed effort to expand
the role of the president’s “Bolivarian” ideology
in the hiring and training of public-school teachers. Finally,
Chávez wants to found a yet-to-be-specified set of “communal
assemblies” that will compete with existing local authorities.
Chávez’s new vice-president Jorge Rodríguez,
who was the CNE’s president during its least transparent
period, calls this new phase of the regime—apparently
without irony—a “dictatorship of true democracy.”
At the same
time, Chávez has announced plans to nationalize
the telecommunications and electricity sectors as well as to
boost the state’s involvement in agro-industry and banking.
The telecommunications policy will assert government control
over CANTV, the firm that controls the transmission of
data from the automated voting system. Once this happens, citizen
confidence in ballot secrecy will plummet further and abstentionism
by oppositionists will rise. Moreover, by denouncing the
local private media company RCTV as golpista and refusing to
renew its broadcast licenses, the Chávez government
has made itself the first popularly elected administration
in Latin America since the 1980s blatantly to curtail press
freedom. The RCTV affair shows how open is the partisan political
bias that now infects the government’s handling of economic
Chávez’s twenty-first–century socialism looks
much like Latin America’s mid-twentieth–century “hard
corporatism” without the physical coercion.22 In Venezuela
today, the opposition has ever fewer means and even incentives
to incur the cost of trying to stop authoritarian leaps. The
problem goes beyond mere internal divisions within the opposition,
crippling as those might be. The core problem is that the opposition
finds itself on the short end of a sharp asymmetry in political
resources vis-`a-vis the state. Private donations are the opposition’s
only recourse, but the state’s offers of impunity and threats
or promises of contract discrimination threaten to close these
off too as business elites become coopted by the new order.
hears that the unlimited spending of money on election campaigns
hurts democracy. Yet uneven campaign financing may
be still worse. In Venezuela, this unevenness has come about
not simply because the state under Chávez has raked in
more oil money, but also because institutional constraints have
been wearing away under a deliberate assault. This erosion
of constraints generated the 2002–2004 governability crisis,
rather than the other way around. Chávez turned back this
critical challenge to his rule with policies of polarization,
selective impunity, and job discrimination, in the process building
a dominant coalition of radicalized ideologues and plentiful
economic winners. Clearly some of these winners are low-income
Venezuelans. But others are members of old-fashioned elites and
do not look all that different from such winners of the Punto
Fijo era as military officers, government employees, and state
contractors. As of now, this coalition is majoritarian, but it
is hardly being mobilized for democratic gains. The story of
Venezuela since Chávez’s rise to power shows how,
when democratic institutions are defective, social spending may
all too readily be bent not toward correcting, but rather toward
entrenching and even exacerbating these defects.
O’Donnell, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism;
Studies in South American Politics (Berkeley: Institute of International
Studies, University of California, 1973).
2. Nancy Bermeo, Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The
Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2003).
Corrales, “In Search of a Theory of Polarization:
Lessons from Venezuela, 1999–2005,” European
Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 79 (October 2005):
Coppedge, “Venezuela: Popular Sovereignty Versus
Liberal Democracy,” in Jorge Domínguez and
Michael Shifter, eds., Constructing Democratic Governance in
Latin America, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
2003); and Javier Corrales, “Power Asymmetries and the
Rise of Presidential Constitutions,” paper delivered
at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association,
Philadelphia, 31 August–3 September 2006.
C. North, William Summerhill, and Barry R. Weingast, “Order,
Disorder, and Economic Change: Latin America Versus North America,” in
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Hilton L. Root, eds., Governing for
Prosperity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); and
Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic
Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1991). For an application of these arguments
to Venezuela, see Francisco Monaldi et al., Political Institutions,
Policymaking Process, and Policy Outcomes in Venezuela (Washington,
D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank, 2005).
Kornblith, “Elections versus Democracy,” Journal
of Democracy 16 (January 2005): 124–37.
Corrales, “Strong Societies, Weak Parties: Regime
Change in Cuba and Venezuela in the 1950s and Today,” Latin
American Politics and Society 43 (Summer 2001): 81–113.
L. McCoy, “From Representative to Participatory
Democracy? Regime Transformation in Venezuela,” in
Jennifer L. McCoy and David J. Myers, eds., The Unraveling of
Representative Democracy in Venezuela (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2004).
9. See Making Services Work for Poor People (Washington, D.C.:
World Bank, 2004).
Rodríguez, “Why Chávez Wins,” www.foreignpolicy.com/story/
Penfold, “Clientelism and Social Funds: Empirical
Evidence from Chávez’s Misiones Programs,” Latin
American Politics and Society (forthcoming).
12. See Youssef
Cohen, Radicals, Reformers, and Reactionaries: The Prisoner’s
Dilemma and the Collapse of Democracy in Latin America (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Berins Collier and David Collier, “Inducements
Versus Constraints: Disaggregating ‘Corporatism,’” American
Political Science Review 73 (December 1979): 967–86.
Weyland, “Neopopulism and Neoliberalism in Latin
America: How Much Affinity?” Third World Quarterly 24 (December
15. José Antonio Gil Yepes, “Public Opinion, Political
Socialization, and Regime Stabilization,” in McCoy
and Myers, eds., The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in
16. These figures are from a survey taken in January and February
2006 by the independent Venezuelan polling firm Consultores 21,
17. See Bruce
Bueno de Mesquita et al., The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 2003).
18. On similar
trends elsewhere, see Thomas Carothers, “The
Backlash Against Democracy Promotion,” Foreign Affairs
85 (March–April 2006): 55–68
19. The opposition wondered about the hard-to-explain 11.7 percent
increase in registered voters that was noted during the brief
time between April and October 2004.
20. By September
2006, Chávez was using three times the
airtime allowed by CNE regulations, and this count leaves aside
his famous Aló Presidente Sunday television show, which
would add another several hours per week. See the report of Ciudadanía
Activa, “Abuso Presidencial en los Medios de Comunicación
del Estado,” Caracas, 2006.
were the Universidad Simón Bolívar,
the Universidad Central de Venezuela, and the Universidad Católica
Stepan, “State Power in the Southern Cone of
Latin America,” in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer,
and Theda Skocpol, eds., Bringing the State Back In (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Corrales, Department of Political. Science,
Amherst College and Michael Penfold, Ph.D./M.Phil/MA (Political
Science) Columbia University, es profesor y analista
politico en el IESA, Caracas. Petroleumworld
not necessarily share these views.
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