Although the Venezuelan government has become increasingly authoritarian since the early 2000s, last week was the first time it openly attacked democracy.
On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court, controlled by the executive branch, took over the functions of the National Assembly. Although this is not the first time the Venezuelan government tried to expand its control over other institutions, unlike previous power grabs, so far, this decision has worked against President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and could potentially ignite regime change.
For the past two decades, democracy in Latin America has eroded. Democratically elected presidents like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (replaced by Nicolás Maduro in 2013), Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have used constitutional amendments to increase the powers of the executive and stay in office indefinitely. Alone, each of their amendments did not represent a strong threat against democracy. But together, they have turned these countries into competitive authoritarian regimes.
For the most part, the international community has watched the erosion of democracy in Latin America, and in particular in Venezuela, from the sidelines. Pro-democracy tools like the Inter-American Democratic Charter, approved by the Organization of American States in 2001, were designed to deal with overt threats against democracy, such as civilian or military coups.
But a slow erosion of democracy does not quite fit that bill. Unlike the military dictatorships that governed countries like Brazil (1964-1985), Chile (1973-1990), Argentina (1976-1983) and Uruguay (1973-1985), Chávez, Morales, Correa and Ortega did not take power by force. They did not close Congress or the courts, or cancel elections. On the contrary, they called for nationally elected constitutional assemblies, held referendums and further legitimized their authority using special elections.
In Venezuela, Chávez and, more recently, Maduro, held a total of 11 elections, while they concentrated executive power, destroyed the system of checks and balances and curtailed civil rights. Imposing international sanctions against a regime that keeps such a democratic façade is hard. Without a clear threat against democracy, any move by the international community could be seen as a violation of Venezuela’s sovereignty.
Domestically, groups opposing presidents attempting to erode democracy face a difficult situation as well. Unlike civilian or military coups, the erosion of democracy happens over time, giving the opposition ample opportunities to fight back. Because they keep a democratic façade, however, presidents willing to undermine democracy are hard to “delegitimize.”
It was easy to claim that Augusto Pinochet in Chile was a dictator. He attained power by force and immediately closed democratic institutions, canceled elections and began killing, torturing and detaining his opponents. Not so much Hugo Chávez. He came to power democratically, left Congress and courts open, held elections and allowed the opposition to run for office. Even though electoral contests have not been free or fair in Venezuela since 2008, the democratic façade has made it hard to convince citizens to turn against the government.
The mask of democracy comes off
The mask of democracy in Venezuela, therefore, has put both domestic and international actors in a difficult position. Last year, the government canceled a recall referendum against the president and indefinitely postponed regional elections. Even then, the opposition was unable to galvanize enough support for regime change domestically or abroad.
The Venezuelan Supreme Court rulings changed that. In practice, the government had been circumventing the National Assembly since January 2016, arguing it was in contempt. However, up until March 29, the administration had been able to deflect criticisms. After all, Congress was there: Its members held sessions and produced legislation. The government just failed to follow, enforce or abide by it. For example, last year, the Supreme Court accepted Maduro’s economic emergency decree, which sought to widen his powers for 60 days.
The minute the Supreme Court said it would take over the National Assembly’s functions, however, the democratic façade fell off. This decision is comparable to former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s to close Congress and rule by decree for seven months. Similar to what happened then, two weeks ago, several countries in the region, including the U.S., made strong pronouncements against the Venezuelan court’s rulings. Regional organizations like the OAS and Mercosur drafted resolutions asking the government to fully restore the powers of the National Assembly and Perú recalled its ambassador.
Domestically, there were also important consequences. The opposition coalition, MUD, strongly condemned the decision. The president of the National Assembly publicly ripped up the rulings’ transcripts. Since then, the MUD has organized nonviolent protests every other day asking the government to remove the justices and schedule elections. More importantly, perhaps, high-level Chavistas, supporters of former president Chavez, dissented for the first time in a long time. On March 31, the Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who so far had been loyal to the regime, denounced the rulings as unconstitutional and called the government to restore the powers of the National Assembly.
It’s unclear what will come of all of this.
So far, it seems that neither opposition nor government is ready to back down. Maduro has used violence to repress the opposition’s peaceful demonstrations, but the MUD keeps calling people to the streets.
With these rulings, the government unwillingly opened a window of opportunity for the opposition. By overtly threatening what little was left of Venezuela’s democracy, the administration decreased its legitimacy domestically and abroad. In that context, peaceful protests are a valuable tool. They are likely to increase pressure against the government, and with it, perhaps deliver some concessions to the MUD. Although this outcome will not automatically deliver a return to a true democracy, it could potentially pave the way for one.