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About Venezuela's Democracy and Presidential Legitimacy

By Gustavo Coronel, December 8, 2003

A recent analysis on Venezuela written by Seth Antiles of Citigroup Global Markets and a reply to that analysis by Maria Cristina Escudero, an employee from the Venezuelan Embassy in the U.S., are both very helpful to those readers who would like to understand the Venezuelan current political process and its points of similarity with other political processes in Latin America. The analysis by Antiles is extremely well written and suggests that the main reason behind both Pinochet and Chávez reaching the presidency in their countries was the popular rejection of traditional politics and the desperation of the majorities for change. Antiles makes it very clear that the mechanisms by which both men reached the presidency were different. He also says that both men can be defined as authoritarian although, again, their ways of expressing this authoritarianism have been different, one through physical repression and the other through verbal abuse. Antiles makes the point that both men chose an enemy to justify their departures from democratic means, Pinochet the threat of communism and Chávez the hate against the oligarchy. In reading his essay I felt that Antiles never intended to say that Pinochet and Chávez were similar but, simply, that the evolution of the Chilean political process in the times of Pinochet had strong similarities to what we are witnessing today in Venezuela. I just had the opportunity to read the reply by Escudero, (her name translates as “he/she who bears the shield”). This is part of her job as an analyst of the Venezuelan Embassy and I think she does a creditable job. She builds her case, however, in trying to prove that Chávez and Pinochet are not similar. Of course they are not. Pinochet was a dictator in the old rightist mold while Chávez is a populist, demagogic leader much more akin to Fujimori. However, Antiles is right in saying that they both represent authoritarian varieties of political leadership. They are both “caudillos,” the primitive strongmen so common to Latin American politics.

Although Escudero’s reply is well written and adorned with academic quotations, I think she fails to sell her argument about Chávez being a democratic and legitimate President. After living through his presidency for five years I have little doubts that his true nature is not democratic and that his performance has rendered his presidency illegitimate.

In his book on “Developing Democracy” (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999) Larry J. Diamond offers a definition of Democracy which closely follows that of Dahl, as quoted by Escudero, namely: a system characterized by Contestation, Participation and Civil Liberties. Escudero claims that all of these three ingredients are present in Chávez's government, with some minor problems that, she says, are common to most other Latin American countries. What she forgets or does not know is that a true Democracy requires other components as well. Those ingredients she lists are indispensable but not sufficient to define a political regime as democratic. I think Escudero is right in claiming that the Chávez government has allowed elections in the country (Contestation), has permitted political participation to take place and, in spite of strong harassment against dissidents and inept attempts to pass fascist like laws in the National Assembly, has not yet been able to restrict essential freedoms. I think it is fair to say that those ingredients still exist because there has appeared a very strong local civic movement in opposition to Chávez and an also strong current of international opinion that have literally forced the government of Hugo Chávez to keep a minimum respect for them. The maneuvers by Chávez to delay or stop the referendum, a constitutional form of contestation, are still in progress and, if pressure from both local and international democratic forces is not continuously applied, he could kill it. The same applies to freedom of expression and to freedom of association, both of which are under permanent threat by violent, paid and armed groups of government followers. I would argue, therefore, that Chávez is not being spontaneously democratic as much as he is being forced to keep democratic pretenses.

Beyond these three basic requirements Democracy needs other elements to exist. A democratic government, says Diamond, is in the business of managing conflict, not in the business of promoting conflict. Any Venezuelan who has eyes, ears and honesty will be able to tell us that the Chávez government has been in the business of enthusiastically promoting conflict and generating violence. This is not the proper way to put the country into the mood for progress. A true democracy keeps harmonious relations with their neighbors and natural allies. The Chávez government has aligned itself with the most backward and despicable regimes of the planet and shown too friendly an attitude towards the Colombian guerrillas. A true democracy controls corruption by minimizing excessive bureaucratic discretionality. The opposite has been the case of the Chávez government where billions of dollars have been handled by Chávez and a small group of military and civilians friends without any accountability. This gigantic disorder has produced levels of corruption in Venezuela only comparable to the worst days of the Lusinchi presidency. A true democracy solves the problems of the people but this regime has spent almost all of its time in power in clinging to power, not in the tasks of government.

Of course, Escudero could always say that the comments I make above represent only my perceptions. To this I would say that they are supported by much solid economic, social and political data, which is easily available for all to see.

The ingredients that Escudero does not mention when talking about the democratic and legitimate presidency of Hugo Chávez are well known to all political scientists, including the ones she quotes. Linz, Valenzuela, Dahl, Huntington, Putnam, Nye, Diamond and others have often written of Conditions and Performance in order to grade the quality of a democracy. Conditions are the ones Escudero has mentioned (Contestation, Participation and Civil Liberties) but they only show half of the picture. The other half, equally important, is Performance. Performance has to do with how effective, how efficient, how transparent and how accountable the government is. Again, for any citizen who has lived in Venezuela during the last five years it will be apparent that the Chávez presidency has had a dismal social and economic performance. Unemployment, poverty, crime rate, devaluation of the currency, artificial exchange controls, regressive taxation, administrative waste, corruption, social resentment and exclusion, loss of social capital, dramatic drop in the ranking of the Human Development Index of the UN, competitiveness, all of these indices are much more unfavorable today than five years ago. The data are available and Escudero should know much of it.

When a government is not effective or efficient in solving the problems of the nation. When a government is not transparent or accountable to the people. When discretionality is so high that the President can assign millions of dollars, in the spur of the moment, to a project, which has not been included in the national budget. When he dares to ask the Central Bank for one billion dollars of the international reserves threatening them with political retaliation if they do not bend to his wishes, then we know that we are not in a real democracy but in some sorry parody of one. And then, this has to lead us to consider whether the government is still legitimate. Legitimacy is both of origin and of performance. The Chávez presidency has legitimacy of origin since it came to be through free and clean elections. This type of legitimacy is like a snapshot, true but static. For legitimacy of performance to exist, the government has to: 1. Be true to its electoral promises: 2. Have an efficient social and economic performance; 3. To keep Institutions independent and political checks and balances in place.

I am sure that Escudero could not dare to say that Chávez has made good on his electoral promises. The fight against corruption has become a fight among government followers for the spoils of the system. The generation of employment has been non-existent, to the point that the unemployment rate is today the highest ever in our country. The solution to the problem of abandoned street children is nowhere in sight. Land reform is riddled with fraud and illegal invasions. Improving the social condition of the poor has not gone beyond empty rhetoric while the middle class has been systematically disappearing. A government, which does not make good on its promises rapidly, becomes illegitimate in the eyes of the disappointed citizens. I am also sure that Escudero has little to say in defense of the government’s economic and social record. The currency is rapidly getting to be worthless, national debt has reached dramatic proportions, the Central Bank has been terrorized by Chávez, food shortages are the rule, 60% of the companies existing five years ago have folded, international reserves pile up at the expense of a normal economic activity, inflation is the highest in Latin America, petroleum production is 800,000 barrels per day lower than two years ago, the national budget for 2004 shows a deficit of about USD $10 billion that will have to be covered with new indebt ness. How is this for economic performance? I am also certain that Escudero cannot do much to explain why the Venezuelan Institutions lack independence from the pressures and the will of the Executive power. No one can argue that men like Isaias Rodriguez, the Attorney General, or Mundarain, the Ombudsman or the General Comptroller, whose name I have mercifully forgotten due to his ectoplasm nature, are independent. They are Chávez's unconditional followers and have consistently behaved like simple errand boys of the President. The same can be said of half of the members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, of the government followers in the National Assembly and of some of the members of the Electoral Council, although this last Institution has been performing quite well under the close vigilance of public opinion. Without effective checks and balances there is no true democracy or legitimacy in government. In the Armed Force Chávez has been able to keep, through the dispensation of illegal benefits, the loyalty of a small group of top brass, a loyalty that exhibits great fragility due to their greed for power and money. All of the shortcomings in performance listed above cannot be defined as minor problems shared by most nations in the region, as Escudero pretends. They are major flaws and warts, which combine to render Chávez's governments illegitimate.

Finally, there are attitudes, which are not formally listed as necessary components of a true democracy but which, nevertheless, should be present in the representatives of a government that aspires to being defined as democratic. These attitudes include respect for dissidence, noble language, trust, tolerance, fiscal and budgetary discipline, correct establishment of social and economic priorities and a respectful treatment for all citizens, not only those who agree with the government.

And, of course, a democratic government should not be speaking of a revolution as their main political objective, a term which does not even exist in our Constitution. Chávez was elected to lead a clear change from the inefficiencies of the past, not to lead a revolution, which so far has clearly surpassed the worst inefficiencies of the past.


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