The Venezuelan brand of democracy

Venezuela has just gone through a long and exhausting presidential campaign. There were massive rallies, ads of all kinds, interesting last-minute developments, and turnout on election day was heavy. The incumbent president won comfortably, and the challenger gracefully accepted defeat. The winner even called the loser on the phone. The story of this election is ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/GettyImages
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/GettyImages
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/GettyImages

Venezuela has just gone through a long and exhausting presidential campaign. There were massive rallies, ads of all kinds, interesting last-minute developments, and turnout on election day was heavy. The incumbent president won comfortably, and the challenger gracefully accepted defeat. The winner even called the loser on the phone.

Venezuela has just gone through a long and exhausting presidential campaign. There were massive rallies, ads of all kinds, interesting last-minute developments, and turnout on election day was heavy. The incumbent president won comfortably, and the challenger gracefully accepted defeat. The winner even called the loser on the phone.

The story of this election is also one of a government overwhelming the voters with cash, giveaways, and propaganda. In order to create an illusion of prosperity, the government dramatically increased public spending ahead of the election, which means the fiscal deficit will reach 15 percent of GDP this year. There was widespread evidence that public employees and beneficiaries of social programs were pressured to vote for the president. Hugo Chávez blitzed the media, an unfair advantage that electoral authorities refused to acknowledge, much less do anything about. Meanwhile, many took the fact that voting machines were fingerprint-activated as reason to believe (mistakenly) that the secrecy of the vote was being compromised.

The Venezuelan election story is one of light and shadows — a mixture of positive things and many other ones that appear to be out of a place in a democratic country. This begs the question: is Venezuela a democracy?

The short answer is yes. Venezuela is a severely dysfunctional, unbelievably corrupt, impossibly dangerous, highly manipulated democracy… but a democracy nonetheless.

One thing we can conclude from the opposition’s rapid acknowledgement of the official results is that the votes tallied reflect what the majority wanted. There is no evidence that a significant number of people were somehow pressured into voting for Chávez when, in reality, they wanted to vote for Capriles. The results as tallied reflected the will of the majority.

Sometimes democratically elected leaders lose their way, and one can then make the case that voters did not endorse the policies their leaders ended up pursuing. Yet in the case of Venezuela, voters knew exactly what they were getting with Hugo Chávez. The support of the majority is an endorsement of his highly chaotic, increasingly autocratic form of government.

My friends who believe Venezuela can no longer be considered a democracy make their case as follows.

One of them is the issue of political prisoners. Estimates of the number of political prisoners vary, but that such prisoners exist is undeniable. In spite of this, it is worth remembering that even democratic nations have political prisoners.

Chile, one of the continent’s most well-regarded democracies, has people in jail that some consider political prisoners. The United States created concentration camps for Japanese immigrants in the 1940s, but this did not mean the U.S. ceased to be a democracy at that moment. During its war with Irish Nationalists, the UK put in prison innocent people, such as the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, yet we don’t view these sad episodes as an indictment on British democracy as a whole.

Critics also point to the absence of separation of powers in Chávez’s Venezuela. This situation is a consequence of the president’s dismantling of existing institutions in 1999 (thanks to a popular mandate to do exactly that) as well as winning elections nonstop since then. But that is where the case thins out.

If, say, the Democrats were to win the White House for the next sixteen years, American institutions would undoubtedly be shaped in the mold of the Democratic Party, yet few could make the case that the U.S. was not a democracy.

Critics also point out the enormous pressure voters felt during this election. When people feel compelled to vote for the government in order to get a washing machine, the argument goes, this means they are not free to choose.

This, however, has always been a problem in Venezuela, a petro-state with few institutional constraints on its leaders. The era prior to Hugo Chávez’s ascension — one most opposition-minded Venezuelans consider democratic — had very similar problems.

These shortcomings have existed in democracies in one way or another, but rarely in such a heightened and distorted way. The system currently ruling Venezuela is highly unfair, and is based on intolerable levels of corruption and violence. The accountability of public officials outside of elections is virtually nonexistent, and fundamental rights such as the right to life, the right to privacy, freedom of expression, or the right to private property are hanging by a thread.

And yet such rights do exist in some form or another.

The Venezuelan way is one where the majority imposes its will on the minority, where minority rights are trampled upon daily, and where the members of the minority are barely even recognized as citizens of their own country.

We may find all this distasteful, but it’s what the majority wants. At the end of the day, isn’t that what the core of democracy is? Chávez’s Venezuela maintains the bare minimum, the very basic trappings of democracy, but that is enough to qualify it as such.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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