University of California, Los Angeles

How Hugo Chavez killed Democracy in Venezuela


Hugo Chavez was Venezuela’s most successful president and democracy’s worst nightmare. His socialist rhetoric and policies were the catalyst for a devastating democratic backslide in Venezuela. Since the early 1900s Venezuela has gone through an era of political turbulence, most notable was in 1958 when leftist activists led a coup on the sitting government to gain power. This led to the establishment of the “Fourth Republic of Venezuela” and Venezuela’s only experimentation with democracy. This attempt at democracy was doomed to fail from the start due to a naive understanding of what democracy entails. Democratic institutions, while theoretically established, could not attain a normative stability because of a derailing opposition.  The Fourth Republic did succeed in establishing three branches of government, representative of democratic structure, designed to help give the people a voice. Another transition of power occured in 1999 when the United Socialist Party of Venezuela took power, leading to the “Fifth Republic of Venezuela”. As these political transitions of power occur it begs the question, who is accountable for the governmental neglect that occurs during periods of instability?

Political foundations begin to fall apart when the players in power refuse to be held accountable for the state of the nation. The unwillingness to take responsibility for negative actions can be seen in various political archetypes, specifically non democratic institutions. Authoritarian figures historically refuse to see that their policies may be the issue. What is accountability when it comes to politics, and how can it be assign in nondemocratic societies? Accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility, or to account for, one’s actions. In Politics this plays out to be the person or the governmental institutions that take a certain responsibility for the state of a nation. Today Venezuela’s government has fallen into chaos. This turmoil stems from a severe economic crisis that abbaided democratic erosion and highlighted the lack of accountability within Venezuela’s political infrastructure.

Venezuela’s current political situation can be traced directly back to President Hugo Chavez’s policies. Hugo Chavez was Venezuela’s president from 1999 to 2013. He was a populist president, meaning that he condemned the elite and attempted to relate to the people. Under his regime the economy of Venezuela saw massive progress. He expanded access to healthcare, education and food for the majority of the population. However, the longer Chavez remained in power the more corrupt his government and his political philosophy, coined “Chavismo”, became. After his death in 2013 he left behind a corrupt police force, weak international allies, a teetering economy and an unstable political architecture. This unstable political architecture occurred because Chavez claimed to operate under a socialist political philosophy that actually became an authoritarian model. He passed laws that restricted any political or journalistic opposition. His campaign promise was to amend the constitution to increase social inclusion, yet a closer examination shows that these amendments made it easy for Chavez’s government to enable and enforce any policy they deemed necessary, with no proper governmental check.

Chavez was able to attain and maintain power by presenting himself as man of the people. A populist politician is one who relates to the majority of the population. Populist politicians capitalize on the “us vs. them” while polarizing previously deemed “good vs. evil” morals. Creating an aura that will correlate “us” with “good” and “them” with “evil”. Voters cling to representatives who identify themselves as the “us” and feel relatable. Often times these politicians are anything but relatable and are ironically brought up in middle to upper class homes. A major component of any populist strategy are slogans that people can relate to. In The United States 2016 presidential election we saw the development of Trump as a populist politician using the slogan, “Make America Great Again”, to identify himself as a more relatable billionaire. Trump took advantage of social media platforms such as twitter to relate, and interact with his constituents. While Chavez did not have access to these type of social media outlets he did use radio and television to communicate and interact with his voters, and used campaign slogans such as, “Chavez is the people!”. However, a facade is not policy and words are not actions. This is what led to the weak governmental backbone in Venezuela that eventually fell apart after Chavez died.

Shortly after Chavez’s passing, oil sales world wide dropped nearly 95%, tanking the Venezuelan economy. This economic spiral lead to Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, a fellow member of his party, taking office. Maduro filled the holes in governmental architecture that Chavez had left behind with authoritarian qualities. Instead of completing a smooth transition of power, Maduro’s tactics and inability to save the tanking Venezuelan economy led to an outcry of from Venezuelan constituents. The people of a once democratic nation now found themselves under the rule of, what some claim to be, a dictator.

As Venezuela continued to fall further from democracy, Maduro attempted to take control via corrupt elections. His ascension was more a forceful takeover, than a fair election. This election has been condemned by the United States and the European Union. This power play demonstrated to Venezuela and the world that Chavez opened an authoritarian door, and now Maduro would complete his work, closing the door on representative democracy.

The question posed time and time again is how does this type of democratic erosion occur in just over half a century? Is there any hope Venezuela can find its way back to a democratic structure? Societies themselves can avoid democratic erosion through institutions and social movements and that is what is happening in Venezuela currently. While hope is bleak for a democratic restructuring under current governmental control, the social movement of the opposition and the tie to oil that Venezuela’s economy has, makes these next few years a critical time. The neonormative era of the impoverished is beginning to take its toll and the opposition is demanding the current government be held accountable. While Chavez was Venezuela’s most popular president, and loved by many at the beginning, his politics are the type of policies that make democracy and representation impossible. Through his populist politics and authoritarian tendencies, Chavez is directly responsible for the democratic erosion that is causing turmoil in Venezuela in the modern day. 





Venezuela Before Chavez: A Prelude to Socialist Failure


Populism, Democracy, and Representation: Multidimensional Concepts and Regime Types in Comparative Politics


How Today’s crisis in Venezuela….


1 Comment

  1. Darius Aikens

    March 15, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    This is a very great blog post with a very efficient way of articulating how democracy eroded in Venezuela. I wonder what are the media regulations here. I’ve noticed throughout this assignment how the governments understand and do not underestimate the power of the media. Additionally, do you believe that media contributes to democratic erosion or supports a democracy or does it further polarizes a society?

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