Within this wave, Venezuela has represented one of the most interesting and debated cases. A point of reference for those supporting radical socio-economic change, for others Chavismo has represented the quintessential irresponsible and undemocratic leftist movement. The recent protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro and the following governmental repression have once again drawn the attention of the world to one of the most radical socio-political experiments in Latin America. In this short essay, I briefly discuss the objectives, practices, and outcomes of the Bolivarian Revolution and I examine the significance of these protests.
Since Chávez’s rise to power in 1998, Chavista governments have pursued the reversion of a status quo perceived as unjust and exclusionary, first through the adoption of a new constitution and later through the establishment of both economic and institutional reforms. Taking advantage of rising oil prices, Chávez established a variety of social programs, including the so-called Misiones (Missions). Moreover, Chávez proposed a new, participatory type of democracy, based on the declared objective of increasing popular participation in public decision making and on the establishment of different participatory mechanisms. The adoption of a participatory notion of democracy may be viewed as the response to the failure of liberal representative democracy, particularly its inability to respond to the needs and preferences of popular sectors. In Venezuela and elsewhere, leftist forces have challenged the suitability of liberal representative democracy to the specificities and problems affecting Latin America, thus calling for the establishment of a different kind of democracy.
In a country characterized by endemic inequality, the social programs established under Chavismo have certainly benefitted large sectors of the population. Similarly, the creation of a variety of participatory mechanisms has favored the incorporation of traditionally excluded groups into mainstream politics. Unfortunately, Chavismo has over time assumed undemocratic traits, eroding democratic checks and balances and leading a significant number of scholars and observers to define Venezuela’s political regime as a hybrid regime, a regime neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian. In particular, under the guise of participatory democracy, participatory mechanisms such as the Community Councils have appeared as instruments to erode the autonomy of democratic, representative institutions, and hence consolidate the power of the government.
Following the death of Hugo Chávez in March 2013, Chavismo has appeared increasingly vulnerable. The protests and episodes of violence currently shocking Venezuela have highlighted the weaknesses of the Bolivarian project, including a slowing economy, high inflation rates, endemic insecurity, tensions between different factions of Chavismo, and, ultimately, Maduro’s inability to replace the figure of Chávez. Since the democratic and undemocratic attempts to remove Chávez from power in the first half of the 2000s, the Bolivarian Revolution has never been as vulnerable as it is today. In light of the problems affecting Chavismo, is the end of the Bolivarian Revolution imminent? While the weaknesses of the Revolution inevitably prompt questions about its durability, an imminent fall of Chavismo appears unlikely. Chavismo continues to enjoy significant popular consensus in Venezuela. Maduro’s narrow and contested victory in the April 2013 presidential election seemed to highlight the difficulties of Chavismo to survive Hugo Chávez. However, in the recent December 2013 municipal elections, in an electoral contest widely perceived as a valuable opportunity for the opposition, the PSUV defeated the opposition by a more comfortable margin nationwide.
Moreover, while the impending danger may have promoted cohesion within Chavismo, tensions, or at least diverging strategies, seem to have characterized the opposition since the outbreak of the protests, possibly undermining its unity. Unlike other members of the opposition, in his analysis of the student protests, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has rejected confrontational strategies aimed at the removal of the government. Finally, the state apparatus firmly remains under the control of the heirs of Chávez, thus raising doubts about the ability of the opposition to overthrow Maduro. Of course, this does not exclude the possibility of the removal of Maduro to the benefit of another Chavista, for example the president of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello.
Whatever the final outcome of the protests, the opposition should not make the mistake of considering Chavismo and its reforms simply as a temporary phase of Venezuelan history. The Bolivarian Revolution has profoundly and irreversibly transformed Venezuela. Though characterized by failures and undemocratic practices, Chávez’s policies have the merit of having addressed long neglected social problems, raising hopes and expectations among popular sectors. Should it gain power, the opposition should not eliminate every policy or institution associated with Chavismo but, rather, purge them from their undemocratic features. The failures and exclusionary traits of the democratic regime preceding Chávez’s rise to power have made it clear that the procedures and institutions of liberal representative democracy are not a guarantee against profound social exclusion. At the same time, the emergence of Chavismo and the consequent erosion of democracy in Venezuela remind us that democracy is at risk when large segments of the population are excluded and marginalized. In the future, the establishment of a truly inclusionary democracy, free from the undemocratic excesses of Chavismo, where participatory institutions complement rather than replacing representative institutions, should be the objective of those interested in a peaceful, democratic, and equitable Venezuela.