Hugo Chavez; Populism aiding Democratic Erosion by Marcella Pensamiento @UCLA
Many argue that Venezuela’s current state of democracy is directly linked to Hugo Chavez’s leftovers as a 15 year president. Specifically, Chavez’s changes of the political agents in power are thought to have had lasting effects negating the nation’s ability to be democratic even under the reign of a new leader, Nicolas Maduro. Currently Venezuela is in the midst of rampant anti government political protests partially due to lack of water, electricity, and food available to the public. The government at this time is unable to provide necessities to the people which could be accredited to Chavez’s lasting authoritarian-esque implementations in the government. Therefore, Hugo Chavez’s populist agenda has significantly contributed to the democratic erosion of the current state in Venezuela.
To understand the way the lack of democracy might be affected by Hugo Chavez’s policy changes, outlined by Weyland, we need to understand what specific changes made his term undemocratic. Through Chavez’s unfair re-election, his controlling grip on opposition groups, and his populist tactics, the former president took away what some would consider privileges of a true democracy.
The election process prior to Chavez’s 14 year term was found to be unfair and dishonest, going against a common requirement for democracy. The agency theory points to individual actors who affect the outcome of a democracy. Chavez mostly made sure his changes in the political system only positively benefited him, not a whole political party, making his strategy representative of agentic theories of change.
The rulers cult of personality, something that aided his political leadership in acting as a singular force at times, was cultivated through many premeditated reelection tactics in 2012. Because the leader took responsibility for the actions made in the government, creating new social initiatives, i.e the Bolivarian Revolution, under his name and creating a cult like following to worship his individual actions, his initiatives eroded democracy through these agenic mechanisms of change.
To call Chavez’s re-election fair would discredit small changes like the fact that from 2003 to 2012 voters who registered grew from 12 million to close to 19 million thought the population increased a mere few million. In addition, citizens who cast a ballot for Capriles, the opposing candidate, were printed in such a manner that made Capriles votes count as third candidate votes. I did not help that the consulate in Miami was closed for the election, being home to many Capriles supporters, closing the consulate was considered a crucial move for Chavez’s win. This manner of re-election would not fulfill what we in class call a “free and fair” election.
Tight restrictions on the opposition also played a role in the downfall of Venezuela’s democracy. The asymmetricaly high media time Chavez received as well as the unlimited use of government buildings and state television stations as platforms to spread his propaganda were considered unfair. In class we talk about a country’s ability to genuinely entertain an opposing party as everyone allegedly has the right to be heard. Robert Dahl specifically mentions democracy’s pluralistic ability to “ best serve the interests of all individuals in society.” Therefore Chavez’s puppertier like grip on his opposition lead to a downfall of a credibility for a his alleged democratic state.
A theme in the way Chavez seemed to have run his reign is important to recognize when attempting to not have history to repeat itself. Populism by definition seeks to empower one stringent agenda, neglecting the opinions or voices of minorities, those who stand in the margins of the majority. While Chavez claims to aim to serve the majority of the population, Capriles won the vote by nearly 45 percent of the population and still lost. To go on claiming representation of the majority and only winning by 5 percent over the required threshold, is diminishing the views of a whopping near half of the population. Capriles’ 45 percent will go on to not be represented although they obviously make up a sizable portion of the population. This lack of representation for those who are not at the very top, and neglecting minority views is anti-democratic as Dahl’s definition of democracy claims and further, extremely elitist.
Like Weyland claims, Chavez sought to promote a very exacting agenda of what he called “socialism for the 21st century”. The rigor and competitive tactics the former president used left no room for observing possible alternative forms to run a nation. Some went as far to call the ruler’s social equity programs the makings of a dictatorship.While the Venezuelan ruler began his enduring term with anti-establishment words and spirit, the aspect of populism we call anti-elitist, Hugo Chavez seemed to have created his own group of elites in the end. Stretching certain privileges, like in his media representation, and allowing his successor to be none other than a long time devotee from within his group of high ranking officials, has allowed a certain group to dominate a society, also known as elitism.
In the context of this election, we can see how the covet of a populist agenda can cause a country to have their democratic rights stripped from the peoples tools of agency. The former president’s populist agenda has possibly tarnished his reputation in vertical accountability and representation. Vertical accountability are the mechanisms through which citizens, media, and all of society can enforce measures of “good performance” on the members of government. Now we see the aftermath of a government being unresponsive to people and set on one very specific group of goals as the protest and rallies untumble. These expressions of anger are perhaps indicative of a lack of mechanisms the people can use to enforce acceptable behavior of their own government, or a lack of vertical accountability.
What exactly are the implications of Hugo Chavez’s actions on Venezuela today? Chavez has set a precedent, an idea or set of actions that the next rulers can mimic or employ. This erosion of democracy therefore might be seen as acceptable, as it has been done before. The leaders of the next generations might take these tactics that chavez has ruthlessly enacted and repeat them to obtain some of the power and status the former ruler attained at his height. Additionally, the definition of democracy might change. Because Chavez’s language so heavily relied on democratic slogans like “people have the power” and “the people are the government”, citizens might have already begun to associate a democracy with unfair tactics and an unrepresentative Chavez era government. However regardless of its title, Chavez’s populist governance has effectively eroded the democratic freedoms of Venezuela, and it is now apparent to Venezuelans as their cries and rallies call for immediate change.