Long before the current crisis in Venezuela, democracy in Latin America was a damaged project. Military coups d’etat and other violent seizures of power in the 1960s and 1970s were followed by weak attempts at redemocratisation. Efforts to institutionalise social rights, particularly those based on state intervention in the economy, provoked hostile reaction from domestic and foreign markets.
Democratic attempts often faced hurdles caused by profound socio-economic restructuring and severe cuts in public spending – with national budgets linked closely to the global economy. Democracy was also highly dependent on markets.
During the 1980s, oil prices fell dramatically. In Venezuela, debt then skyrocketed, giving way to a dramatic political and economic crisis that was exacerbated by blatant corruption.
Then in 1998 Hugo Chávez was elected president – but with no fixed strategy of what an “anti-capitalist project” might entail. Instead, he took power at the end of a decade that had seen a catastrophic deterioration in living standards and the monopoly of conservative political parties.
Chávez was elected on his pledge to refound the republic in line with the vision of Simon Bolivar, who had liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule in the early 19th century. And for Chávez, over more than a decade his experiments seemed to work.
According to the World Bank, his social, political and economic reforms led to a spectacular 50% reduction of poverty, and a 65% drop in “extreme poverty” between 1998 and 2012.
These gains were mirrored by Venezuela’s neighbours, with Latin America successfully reducing poverty and promoting shared prosperity. The proportion of the region’s 600m people living in extreme poverty (defined as a daily income of less than US$2.50) was cut in half between 2003 and 2012 to around 12%.
In Venezuela, post-neoliberalism as a project (committed to the creation of non-market societies, economies and cultures) remained highly dependent on the oil bonanza, accumulating reserves which supported the use (and abuse) of social welfare regimes. Yet as it became increasingly caught in the international oil industry downturn, so too did the post-neoliberal project.
A state that failed the people
The halving of the oil price in 2014 sharply reversed the advances made in reducing poverty and inequality. Fatal food and medicines shortages, disease outbreaks and widespread social deprivation spiralled into an unprecedented social and economic crisis.
Now, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), nearly 90% of Venezuelans live in poverty – a dramatic increase from an already alarming 48% in 2014.
It would be politically naive to think that the promise of democracy in Venezuela was vulnerable purely because of an over-reliance on a volatile oil industry. That was undoubtedly a fatal flaw, but Venezuela also failed to reconcile a deeply polarised society.
Since his election as president in 2013, Nicolás Maduro has failed to address chronic problems of economic mismanagement, poor planning, increasing social discontent, and corruption. His country has since undergone cycles of protest and repression that reinforced the social divide.
Human rights violations became systematic. There have been well documented restrictions on social protest and freedom of expression, with extrajudicial detentions and arbitrary arrests of opponents. On top of this, a devastating humanitarian crisis has seen an exodus to neighbouring countries - Brazil and Colombia – in a scale never seen before. The number of arrivals from Venezuela to neighbouring countries has steadily increased, reaching 5,000 per day in early 2018.
To some, Venezuela had become a failed state, without the basic norms of democratic governance. Then on January 23 2019, Juan Guaidó, leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself president of the republic.
Guaidó has long been an anti-government activist, but until recently was little known around the world – or even in Venezuela. Yet his move was quickly endorsed by several Latin American countries, as well as Canada and the United States. His self-claim to the presidency is quite problematic too: it draws legitimacy from “assertive politics” rather than from a direct democratic ballot. The end apparently justifies the means.
The argument seems to be that Maduro has ruined the Venezuelan economy, violated human rights of all sorts, repeatedly challenged the Venezuelan constitution himself, and was not freely or fairly re-elected in 2018.
Guaidó therefore alleges that that Maduro “stole” power and the role of president has therefore been left vacant.
Meanwhile, the president of the European parliament, Antonio Tajani, said the Venezuelan people have had “enough of the hunger and abuse suffered at the hands of Maduro”. And the Trump administration asserts that all countries must “pick a side” and back the “forces of freedom”.
But can an opposition leader – albeit with the support of foreign powers – simply state that the president of the country is not actually the president, and take power himself? If he can, how would Venezuelans be reassured that removing the “bad” president will not simply legitimise more politics of this “assertive” kind.
So for the moment, the country has been plunged into a situation whereby it has an internationally recognised government which has no democratic mandate from the people or control over state functions - yet it runs parallel to Maduro’s parliament, with a de facto presidential mandate yet a delusional and dangerous sense of authority.
This is not democracy. What Venezuela urgently needs is to reconstruct the foundations of political legitimacy beyond declarations. It requires electoral democracy and political consensus that can genuinely represent the people, deliver development, and reconstruct a sense of citizenship and belonging for its people.