Shadow Government

Making sense of the success of Chavismo

Hugo Chavez continues to ruin his country, and a recent book analyzing Chavismo explains how and why. Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela, published by the Brookings Institution and written by Professors Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, is a must read for those who want to understand ...

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Hugo Chavez continues to ruin his country, and a recent book analyzing Chavismo explains how and why. Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela, published by the Brookings Institution and written by Professors Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, is a must read for those who want to understand how Chavez came to power and why he is doing what he is doing, despite the unintended consequences of ruining his most precious asset, the national oil company PDVSA. The book is suitable for policymakers and students of Latin America and Venezuela generally, but there is something for the theorists as well in that the authors discuss democratization, institutional theory, and political economy. My only significant criticism is that they label the Chavez regime a "hybrid" regime because they believe it remains sufficiently democratic to call it that. I believe this term is a bit mushy. A regime is not truly democratic anymore when the executive increases his power relentlessly and coercively and uses it to destroy checks and balances and to co-opt all other branches and institutions of government as well as the economy to do his bidding, to the point that the secret ballot is compromised.

Chavez is like many dictators past and present: he came to power using the ballot box (after two violent and failed coup attempts) and once gaining it, has done all he can, legally and extra-legally, to hold it. Buying support with oil largesse is not necessarily undemocratic, but unequal application of the laws, punishing opponents economically via state power and corrupting the election process is indeed undemocratic. The fact that public opposition to Chavez cannot now be turned into an electoral victory because of his subversion of most institutions makes such "hybrid" democracy look a lot like Mubarak’s Egypt, and few considered that fake republic worthy of the designation "democracy."

That Chavez is so thoroughly and efficiently ruining his country should surprise no one who has followed his career. What he showed himself to be in his two coup attempts in 1992 and again as he campaigned for the presidency in 1997 has not changed except in terms of vigor, determination and increasing power. That he is not a democrat and intends the destruction of all opponents is obvious — even to those who have waited too long to pronounce this judgment, (Sean Penn notwithstanding). That he manipulates the economy with a heavy-handed statism that would embarrass his "oligarch" predecessors is also obvious. Meeting the basic needs of the poor and raising many out of extreme poverty are good things in themselves and he has done this for some years. But when done by economically ignorant means and for undemocratic goals that destroy the goose that lays the golden eggs as well as a democratic and republican form of government, however weak it was, is not laudable. Truly the dragon is harming the entire country even as he tries to destroy his opponents.

How has he been able to do this?

As Corrales and Penfold reveal, very shrewdly as to tactics and methods but foolishly as to long-term strategy. While his fate is not certain, and the authors make an interesting case theorizing as to why he might survive the eventual collapse of oil prices, he is now and will continue to harm the very poor he purports to aid because of his efforts. Inflation harms everyone; PDVSA’s decline means Venezuela’s only significant export is evaporating; and the corruption his "hybrid" regime has spawned is disillusioning his base. And all this is what Chavismo is now delivering in abundance.

Chavez has inspired imitators and fans in high places in various Latin American countries: Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia, and Ortega in Nicaragua, who are in power and work their will; Lugo in Paraguay who is in power but cannot radicalize his country because the opposition controls Congress; Zelaya in Honduras who sought to subvert his democracy but was removed by the opposition with public support; and Humala in Peru who hopes to gain power this June. But Chavez has been able to do far more than any of these can ever hope to do. This is the case, the authors argue, because of the resource curse of oil plus total command of most of the institutions of Venezuelan society; that is, having a lot of oil doesn’t completely explain his success.

Chavez had much to work with upon coming to power because for decades the two parties that took turns ruling Venezuela practiced statism and rent-seeking. Chavez put the system on steroids. Corrales and Penfold show how the weakening of democracy and the independence of the economy — and in particular the oil industry — begun under Chavez’s predecessors but hastened and taken to knew lows by Chavez has given him the ability to use oil to fundamentally change all the major institutions of Venezuelan society: the economy, the military, the media and, of course, politics. The few sectors that remain somewhat independent but nevertheless relatively powerless are the Church and a few elements of civil society and loosely organized sectors such as university students. It does not look good for Venezuela, neither its poor nor members of its rich and middle classes that have not already fled abroad. And it does not appear that it will change for the better any time soon, especially with oil prices high and Chavez in complete control. Dragon in the Tropics explains why.

What should be the U.S. response? Certainly not what it has been. Trying to treat Chavez as simply an eccentric revolutionary politician with whom our president shares hip handshakes at the United Nations, and looking the other way as he subverts democracy, cozies up to Iran and other U.S. enemies, and harms the peace in the region (unhelpful influence or meddling in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Honduras, various Caribbean island states, et. al) will not do.

Our policy should be what it should have been in 1997 and what it was in the Bush administration: regular and firm condemnation of undemocratic language, tone and deeds as well as regular and firm support for the democratic opposition. We should encourage the democrats of Venezuela by all the means that would give them hope; we should provide them with training and resources to participate in Venezuelan civil society and the electoral process as much as they are able. And all of our friends in the region are disheartened when they perceive a U.S. government acquiescing to Chavez’s behavior and not supporting the democratic opposition. We should also make Chavez’s behavior the subject of our concerns at the Organization of American States on a regular basis.

Even now stories in the media point to the continuing destruction of the democratic fabric of Venezuela, and we should be speaking out.

A brief review of recent events suffices to show what Chavez is doing and these provide us with opportunities to act in behalf of Venezuela’s beleaguered democrats.

  • At the recent gathering of the Inter-Parliamentary Union for the region, Alfonso Marquina, an opposition Venezuelan legislator lamented that any event "which damages or tries to finish off democracy, freedom and the rule of law" is the concern of everyone in the region. He added "In Venezuela, laws do not suffice if there is not political will and democratic institutions able to enforce them…regardless of free, direct election every year…it is also true that government institutions are stalwart supporters of the Executive Office."
  • Recently, Chavez continued his rant that his opponents are "scheming against his government" ahead of the 2012 presidential elections to bring in foreign forces. Said Chavez, alluding to the United States and his domestic opponents, "Venezuela is a target of intervention like Libya and Ivory Coast."
  • And one more item, demonstrating how Chavez continues to use Venezuela’s oil and his uncontested control of all of the Venezuelan government (as Corrales and Penfold document): Chavez announced last week a new decree (a power available to him because of the special powers vested in him by the National Assembly, Chavez’s wholly-owned unicameral legislature) instituting yet another windfall tax on oil, the proceeds of which will go into his "social" fund to be disbursed to his supporters at his discretion with no checks by any authority, accounting or auditing. He also announced more expropriations of private property, this time of apartment blocks, and the state purchase of land to provide for his supporters.

Besides the cancer of narco-terrorism, Chavez is the main threat to U.S. interests in the region, and he is so because he is no democrat. Our policy should be clear: no business as usual with those who would turn back the clock on the democratic advances of the hemisphere since the Reagan Administration, when the United States began to stand strongly for democrats and their cause. As Venezuelan National Assembly Deputy Maquina has noted well, this is everyone’s concern.

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