Socialism, populism, and the future of Venezuelan democracy
In February, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez celebrated victory in a constitutional referendum that abolished presidential term limits, winning him the right to seek reelection indefinitely. As leader of the United Socialist Party, Chávez has dominated Venezuelan politics since his first election in 1998. Armed with his unique brand of leftist political ideology called chavismo, Chávez revolutionized Venezuelan politics by giving the poor an unprecedented stake in the political game. Yet despite his success, much of the Chávez legacy remains uncertain; Venezuela’s economic growth seems driven more by high oil prices than wise fiscal policy, and for all Chávez’s attempts to preserve democracy, his tactics in past contested elections suggest an inclination to abuse power in times of electoral vulnerability.
Reinventing Popular Politics?
Since taking office, Chávez has focused mostly on domestic issues including combating poverty, building infrastructure, and promoting “a socialism of the 21st century.” Among the most significant achievements of his first term was Plan Bolivar 2000, a national program of road building, housing construction, and mass vaccination. Chávez also used oil profits to fund the Bolivarian Missions, a series of government programs promoting welfare, land redistribution, and education for all citizens, especially the poor. According to Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard, “The interests of the poor had been unaddressed for decades, and many low-income Venezuelans felt that politicians had marginalized them. Chávez was really the first to show concern both in rhetoric and actual policy for the poor.” Since 1999, unemployment has fallen by 7.7 percent and poverty also has fallen drastically.
Despite Chávez’s promotion of economic growth and higher standards of living, his work for the poor may be overstated. Specifically, he has been very dependent on high oil prices to fund the social programs that drive his popularity. As Michael Coppedge, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, told the HPR, “No other government in Venezuela and few other governments in the world have ever had such resources at their disposal. If [resources] had been used wisely and prudently … Venezuelans would have benefited much more.” Much of the oil wealth has been transferred to government loyalists and spent on imported goods, removing assets from Venezuela. Moreover, now that oil prices have fallen, many social programs may be unsustainable. And although these programs benefit the poor neighborhoods that are the source of Chávez’s popularity, the government has yet to seriously address the soaring crime rates that plague those areas. Dr. Julia Buxton, senior research fellow at the University of Bradford, explained to the HPR that issues of violence and corruption “need to be prioritized by the government as a matter of absolute urgency.” Socioeconomic progress under Chávez is thus not as sound as it appears.
Keeping Democracy Intact
Yet the most serious criticism of Chávez is his firm grip on power and the threat it poses to democracy. While Venezuela meets numerous criteria that would seem to make it fully democratic, including holding largely free and fair elections with universal suffrage, allowing competition among parties, and protecting most basic civil liberties, the country is widely considered to be on the edge of authoritarianism. However, the fact that opposition parties were able to gain key governorships in the November 2008 local elections is a sign that democracy is still robust. “This mixed performance suggests that it’s not going to be so easy to consolidate power,” Levitsky said. “It’s a good sign of healthy democracy that opposition still exists and is wary of moves toward authoritarianism.”
It is, nevertheless, unclear whether Chávez would step down willingly after losing an election. As Coppedge noted, “Democratic governments should peacefully surrender power when they lose an election in which their power is at stake.” Chávez’s controversial delays in response to petitions for recall elections in 2004 that suggest he may attempt to hold onto the presidency in the event of a defeat. And his rhetoric has done little to assuage critics. “He says he will be president until he is 93, and he means it,” warned Coppedge. Indeed, even though Chávez may never encounter an electoral defeat given the support of his poor and working class base, the concern surrounding his hold on power casts serious doubt on his legacy as a true politician of the people.