Chronicle of a Crisis Foretold: Chavez playbook on the current Venezuelan crisis. By David Ardila
The Venezuelan regime has essentially run out of vocal supporters in the international scene. A decade ago, several prominent public figures and politicians praised and defended the Chavez regime as an economic miracle, proudly pointing to falling poverty rates and improving social indicators, making Venezuela an example of positive change within a traditionally corrupt democracy.
Over the last few years, with Venezuela progressing towards authoritarianism and the economic catastrophe becoming increasingly incontrovertible, a narrative has emerged around the Venezuelan crisis that tries to make the earlier opinions of Chavez compatible with the current state of affairs. This narrative is very common within previous Chavistas strongholds both inside and outside Venezuela. In essence, the people who support this narrative claim that Maduro is not Chavez. This narrative portrays Chavez as a democratic leader that did a lot for his country, but that failed to create a system that would endure after his death, and gave control to an inept and corrupt leader, Maduro, that ran the country into the ground.
The appeal of this narrative is evident. It allows former Chavez supporters to reconcile their support for Chavez with the current state of Venezuela by removing the responsibility of the crisis off Chavez’s shoulders and putting it completely on Maduro’s. From a short-sighted utilitarian perspective, people argued that the positive social indicators were a sign of the good management that Chavez gave to the country, and the current crisis is due to Maduro’s complete lack of competence and authoritarian tendencies. While the crisis has definitely progressed in recent years under the presidency of Maduro, this narrative dangerously ignores the incredible lengths to which Chavez went to destroy the system of checks and balances in government and consolidate power in the executive, making the country a fertile ground for authoritarianism.
Bermeo argues in On democratic backsliding that the nature of democratic backsliding has changed, and we need to be looking for different signs. Executive coups have been replaced by executive aggrandizement, a process in which the executive weakens the system of checks and balances, takes over the institutions of the country in a legal and democratic fashion and weaponizes them to diminish the power of the opposition, and concentrates power in the executive branch. If we go back to Chavez’s first election in 1998, within two months of his inauguration he asked Congress to pass a ley habilitante, which allowed him to govern by decree. The House and the Senate agreed to this measure. He continued to govern by decree on several different occasions during his presidency. Maduro followed suit and has used ley habilitante to govern by decree numerous times during his own presidency.
Chavez supporters will also mention the consistent public support that Chavez had during his time as President, as evidenced by the myriad of elections that he won over the 14 years he spent in power- elections that were constantly monitored by the international community. But as Bermeo explains strategic election manipulation is on the rise. We must not only look at direct fraud, but also at gerrymandering, manipulation of the rules of the election, and harassment of opposition parties. The first action that Chavez took while swearing on the Constitution was to call for a constitutional assembly election. In this election, Chavez coalition, Polo Patriotico won 65% of the vote, but managed to get 95% of the seats. The elected national assembly voted to take over the role of Congress and gave itself absolute power to pass laws in Venezuela. Chavez went on to use the judicial apparatus he now controlled to weaken the opposition by barring opposition leaders from participating in elections. When the officialist candidate lost the race for Mayor of Caracas in 2008, the assembly passed a law that moved most of the powers and funding of the Mayor to a different organization headed by a person hand picked by Chavez, effectively making the election moot. Similarly, in 2017, after the opposition won the majority of the seats in the National Assembly, the most important electoral defeat of the Chavez coalition since it started, the Supreme Court of Venezuela dissolved the newly elected legislative body, and Maduro called for an election of a new constitutional assembly, which took over the legislative powers.
Maduro may not be Chavez, but he is following Chavez’s playbook very closely. From harassing opponents, governing by decree, and weaponizing the judicial branch, to ignoring lost elections by simply moving the power to a different organism, the parallels are everywhere. The damage that Maduro is doing today is only possible because Chavez destroyed all checks and balances that were supposed to control the Executive. The opposition parties have been systemically harassed, and the elections in Venezuela since the constitutional assembly election in 1999 have been designed to be won by the incumbent. Chavez was able to hide under the misguided praise that his anti-imperial stance and his oil-funded social programs granted him, but democratic institutions were attacked from day one. We should call democratic backsliding as soon as we spot it, because once the institutions that are supposed to control the Executive are gone, authoritarianism can rise quickly. The narrative that Maduro is a historical aberration that is deviating from Chavez’s plans is a dangerous revisionism. This is a chronicle of a death foretold, the death of democracy.
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