Recent protests in Caracas against the continued rule of Chavez’s political heirs suggest that the electoral revolution carried out by Venezuela’s late caudillo is a least a bit shaky.
When Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s democratically-elected strongman died last March, there was some question about how long the neo-socialist regime created by the late paratrooper-turned president would last. Would it endure as its founder intended, or totter and fall in a Latin version of a color revolution of the type that rocked Ukraine and Georgia a decade before?
The jury is still out on that question, but the recent protests in Caracas against the continued rule of Chavez’s political heirs suggest that the electoral revolution carried out by Venezuela’s late caudillo is a least a bit shaky. At the least they show that the socialist agenda and the quasi-authoritarian political system bequeathed by Chavez to the people of his country remain unpopular among large portions of the population.
Legitimate domestic dissent, however, is not something the government of Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, and his political party want to acknowledge. Indeed, after a week of small-scale student street protests that has left three dead and scores wounded, the official line out of Caracas is to blame foreign meddlers – read Washington D.C. and the CIA – as the source of the protests. Maduro has even gone so far to expel three U.S. diplomats for allegedly aiding the protests – accusations the State Department derides as “baseless and false.”
One would not be paranoid to suspect U.S. influence in Venezuela’s recent bout of street protests. During Chavez’s first term as president military officers with connections to the U.S. and its intelligence services carried out a coup attempt that failed to topple him from power. The U.S., as is now known, knew about the plot well in advance, and it has been widely alleged that Washington was, if not the coup’s engineer, at least its covert enabler.
Likewise, Latin America’s history is littered with instances of the U.S. toppling the region’s governments and aiding murderous, right-wing anti-democratic plotters and regimes. Indeed, from Guatemala in 1954 to Chile in 1973 and nearly every year in between, it seems hard to document an anti-democratic coup in which the U.S. was not involved in some manner. The U.S., to put it succinctly, was simply not interested in Latin American democracy for much of the post-war period and, in the infamous words of Henry Kissinger, “was not about to let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
So the Maduro government – like the one previously headed by Chavez – has right to be more than a little suspicious about possible U.S.-backed plots. Our hands in this region are simply not clean.
What’s more, U.S. actors, mostly democracy promotion organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, have in fact been active in training and supporting democracy activists from countries like Ukraine, Serbia, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere. While mostly benign – the NED is not run by the CIA – this is not exactly comforting for those long used to seeing their countries subverted, by hook or by crook by the long-arm of Washington, either.
Still, it would be grossly inaccurate to say that the protests are mere puppets controlled by a master sitting in Langley, Va., or inside the White House. Unless proof can be documented to the contrary, these student protests are not rent-a-mobs of the like ginned up by the CIA’s men in Tehran that were subsequently used to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh and install the Shah. Their grievances are real, and the government in Caracas would be well advised to hear them.
First is the deteriorating state of Venezuelan society. Venezuela, despite being rich in oil, is suffering from extremely high inflation brought on by overspending, nationalization of many productive commercial enterprises and poor domestic management of the economy. Coupled with crime that, even by Latin American standards, is very high, the economic uncertainty and physical insecurity that marks the lives of huge numbers of average Venezuelans is a crisis by any stretch of the imagination.
Second, this slide into stagnation and insecurity for many Venezuelans has been accompanied by a loss of press freedom as the government, first under Chavez and then Maduro, has cracked down on dissent – a campaign that intensified after the failed coup against Chavez in 2002. In 2009, many broadcasters were shut down for failing to pay license fees and their assets turned over to pro-government community media – a tactic reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s muzzling of independent media in Russia.
Third, compounding this assault on independent media in Venezuela is the degree to which Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution has achieved a near unassailable position in the country’s political system through constitutional gerrymandering and presidential decree. Taken as a whole, the revolution has systematically neutered opposition parties hostile to Venezuela’s socialist regime and packed the country’s political institutions, from the judiciary to state governorships, with members of the ruling party.
Then, there is Cuba – whose government has become extremely close with Caracas. While still alive Chavez looked to Fidel Castro as a role model and elder statesmen, frequently honoring him and forging a close working alliance between Bolivarian Venezuela and Cuba’s communist leadership. This has included, in addition to state visits and mutual praise for one another, a shared diplomatic hostility to the U.S. and a hard exchange of assets. Oil-rich Venezuela, for instance, ships deeply discounted petroleum to Cuba while Havana provides medical personnel and security and intelligence expertise and aid to its new socialist ally.
Taken as a whole, those opposed to Venezuela’s tilt toward autocratic leftism have something of a point. Given that Chavez himself led a failed coup in 1992 aimed at overthrowing Venezuela’s democratic, albeit feckless and corrupt, political system is further proof, say regime critics, that the Bolivarian Revolution’s faith in the idea of liberal democracy is neither wide nor deep.
Chavistas, goes their argument, believe in democratic elections only so long as they win them and that, once won, there should be no constraint on their power to remake Venezuelan society in whatever fashion to choose to do so.
Having won multiple general elections which, despite criticism from the right, have been seen as mostly free and fair, those currently in control of Venezuela have not a small claim to wielding power legitimately. Who is the opposition, the government might rightly claim, to argue that Chavez and his successors are illegitimate when those protesting Chavismo have yet to win a single election? To whom else has the right to speak for the general will been given?
Majority rule matters a great deal, and often too soft a line on a minority can lead to a hamstringed government or worse. Just look at the U.S., where a hardline faction of Tea Party Republicans has consistently used its entrenched power to block nearly every single one of President Barack Obama’s popular domestic agenda items, childishly shut down the government, and recklessly risked a default on America’s outstanding debt. This, as the Economist has adroitly put it, is no way to run a country, either.
Still, liberal democracy is not merely just about majority rule, and it contains arguments for significant minority rights precisely to avoid the situation now playing out on the streets of Caracas. For when a faction believes its very existence is at stake and in the hands of a vengeful majority, violence – out of a sense of self-defense and preservation – may appear to be the only viable option. In such instances polarization and mutual distrust can quickly lead to civil war and mass bloodletting on a truly horrific scale, as what were once fellow citizens fall on one another like wolves.
To have this be Venezuela’s fate when the country is so rich in potential would be a tragedy. Yet, for that fate to be avoided both Chavez’s political heirs and the opposition must come to some sort of accommodation that grants both sides legitimacy and assures each other that, once in power, they are not existential threats to each other.
On the right, members of the opposition have to understand that poverty, gross economic inequality and a bitter lack of social inclusion by those at the bottom of Venezuelan society are real issues that need to be solved, while on the left, Chavistas have to acknowledge that the rich and big business have a right to exist in post-Chavez Venezuela, too.
If Venezuela is to survive, then compromise must become the country’s watchword. Unfortunately, neither side at present looks set to make the important concessions necessary to move the country beyond its current political impasse. Therefore, look for things to get worse, not better, in Caracas in the near future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.