Chavez Rides Again

Make no mistake: Hugo Chávez's victory in Sunday's election marks another step in the erosion of Venezuela's democratic institutions.

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez pulled off an electoral coup on Sunday, besting his energetic opponent Henrique Capriles with 55 percent of the vote (compared to 44 percent for Capriles). The victory was yet another notch in the belt for Chávez. He has won an impressive four presidential elections, survived a recall referendum, and built a powerful new political party that has come to dominate the parliament and a majority of Venezuelan states. His re-election will mean that he will have spent twenty years in office by the time his new term ends.

With the renewal of his mandate in the Palacio de Miraflores, Chávez is promising a deepening of his self-styled "twenty-first century socialism." The most immediate result is likely to be an even greater role of the state in the economy. The nationalization of key sectors of the economy is sure to continue, particularly in the agricultural, industrial, and utility sectors. Chávez’s re-election also presages the expansion of a wide range of social programs targeted at poorer Venezuelans. This comes as welcome news for Chávez’s supporters — a record eight million of whom flocked to the polls on October 7 — and some laud it as evidence of democratic progress.

Since his first election in 1998, Chávez has tapped the vast resources of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to finance a series of social "missions" through one of the largest social funds administered in Latin America. It is the distribution of billions of dollars via these funds that has been a hallmark of Chávez’s presidency, and which has created a powerful personal connection between him and many of the country’s poor. The social missions have helped millions of Venezuelans in poverty by providing low-cost health care and education, subsidized food, housing, jobs, and access to land. These programs have won Chávez loyalty and popular support among recipients, and will remain a centerpiece of his administration.

Yet the policies that Chávez has pursued to achieve these transformative changes have come at a steadily rising cost — and the bill is sure to come due at some point. The sequential nationalizations and confiscations of private companies and property have reduced foreign investment in key sectors and increased public debt. They have also stoked inflationary pressures and contributed to the black market for foreign currency. Uncertainty over property rights in rural areas, along with increased land squatting and expropriations as part of the expanding land reform program, has squeezed the already anemic agricultural sector. And despite production regulations and price controls for staples, food prices are soaring. This hits hardest many of the same poor that ardently support Chávez.

To strengthen his hand in implementing reform, Chávez has a history of pushing through controversial political changes — changes that will surely influence political competition in the future. His detractors charge him with eviscerating a system of checks and balances by stacking the courts in his favor, eliminating the upper house of Congress via a constitutional change, and weakening freedom of the press through harassment and the revocation of operating licenses. And both sides speak of ventajismo, the advantages of incumbency Chávez gains simply by controlling the national airwaves, the bureaucracy, and a glut of public funds for social programs not subject to congressional oversight.

The administration of social programs is particularly noteworthy since it is designed not only to aid those individuals who are enrolled, but also to bolster Chávez’s election prospects in a way that leaves the democratic playing field uneven. Many beneficiaries feel compelled to vote for Chávez and show their support publicly through attending rallies and party events. Those who do not often fear they may lose their benefits. These fears are not without reason. Widespread allegations of political punishment arose when the names of millions of registered voters in Venezuela were made public after they signed a petition to recall Chávez from office in a 2004 referendum.

Research I have conducted provides substantial evidence that Chávez funnels land grants from his controversial large-scale land reform program to his closest supporters. And given that the publicly available recall list as well as the work of Chávez’s densely organized political network enable his party to make good guesses about individuals’ likely partisan affiliation, there is little reason to believe that he limits the political targeting of benefits to the land reform program. Indeed, there is evidence that high school education programs for poor adults and discount food stores are more readily accessible in pro-Chávez municipalities.

These programs have strengthened Chávez at the polls and enabled him to consolidate his political power. The most recent change strengthened the executive through a constitutional amendment that eliminated term limits. This modification set the stage for the October 7 vote that extended Chávez’s mandate another six years.

Some argue that the opposition’s robust showing, despite the loss, implies that they will play an ever-more prominent position in Venezuela’s political landscape in the years ahead. Yet it is increasingly difficult to envision how the opposition could beat Chávez at the polls absent an extreme event such as plunging oil prices or runaway inflation. And while the opposition may make limited inroads in upcoming regional elections and the 2015 parliamentary elections, the same realities of recent political competition — Chavez’s well-oiled patronage machine, state domination of the media, severe gerrymandering, and selective harassment of the opposition — will hobble their ability to effect sweeping change. Instead, Chavez will likely use his new term to deepen the radical changes he has already made at the expense of Venezuela’s hard-won democratic institutions.

On top of everything else, Chavez’s success has an impact beyond Venezuela’s borders. Chávez’s success at modifying Venezuela’s constitution to extend term limits is exercising an ominous influence on other politicians in the region. While the former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe’s similar attempts were foiled by the Constitutional Court and Brazil’s Lula da  Silva willingly stepped down despite the popularity to enable a third term, leaders such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have successfully pushed through constitutional changes or won court cases to extend their tenure in office. And the supporters of Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner are now pushing for constitution reform to allow her to run for a third term in 2015. These changes are typically implemented under the guise of meeting the people’s popular demands to stay in office. As U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s famous court-packing scheme demonstrates, however, few politicians can resist aggrandizing their power in the face of resistance when their electoral mandates can be renewed repeatedly.

For democracy to function well, the incumbent must play by the same rules as the political parties and politicians in the opposition. These standards have slipped to the brink in Venezuela. With Chávez’s re-election, he is pledging to further his "Bolivarian Revolution" against the oligarchy in the spirit of Venezuela’s national hero, Simón Bolívar. But Chávez should heed one of the often-overlooked lessons of Bolivar’s legacy that stained his reputation long before being resuscitated by Latin American nationalists: for all his accomplishments, Bolívar could never quite come to terms with leaving power.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.

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