It is never too late for us, critical Latin American intellectuals, to recognize the authoritarianism of the Venezuelan government. There are already enough reasons for us, Latin American “progressive” academics, to publicly assume the “closure” of the regime, and to take this into account when analyzing the possible solutions for the “catastrophic draw” established in Venezuela.
Maintaining silence, or preserving formal support — sometimes uncritical — for the Nicolás Maduro regime does nothing to resolve the impasse.
THE CRITICISM OF THE VENEZUELAN PROCESS
It is understood that the issue is difficult to be faced. Much of the beauty and excitement took place in Venezuela in the early years of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. A new Constitution expanded social rights and made room for mechanisms of direct democracy and popular participation. Social investments and mobilization campaigns —the so-called Missions— have considerably reduced poverty, eradicated illiteracy and expanded access to health care.
Thousands of spaces for participatory democracy were built: the Communal Councils, which in their early years had the participation of the majority of the population, including opposition members. In the field of international relations, we sought to build an alternative to US domination in the Caribbean region, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba).
Additionally, there is a great fear that, when criticizing Chavismo, it will slip into arguments that should be avoided at all costs — or be confused with those who have always used them.
I would mention at least two bad arguments, which complement each other. The first is the accusation of “populism”, always leveled against any leader who seeks a direct relationship with the masses, bypassing liberal representation mechanisms.
Populism is an empty concept of combat that is generally used to delegitimize the opponent. It barely disguises the people’s fear of those who accuse someone of populism, the demophobia of those who hope that politics will always be channeled through the institutions of liberal democracy. Here I come to the second bad argument against Chavismo: the limited view of democracy, which for many boils down to rules and procedures to organize the political dispute between elite groups. Popular participation, smell of people, mobilization, politics in the streets. Here is the terror of these people.
O END OF DEMOCRACY
It is understandable then why we are so afraid to criticize Chavismo. Most of his critics have constituted themselves for more than two decades as elitists and authoritarians, and they launch arguments against him from these perspectives. With this, we have highlighted or criticized in low voices for a long time serious problems such as the deepening of dependence on oil (the “rentismo” of the Venezuelan state), or the growing militarization of government personnel.
In any case, reliable elections were held, verified by international organizations, spaces of opposition were preserved —almost all the major Venezuelan dailies and television channels at that time—, and Chavismo was effectively legitimized by the majority vote.
Until 2015, when an authoritarian drift began with more evidence. Following the disappearance of leader Chávez in 2013 and the worsening of the economic crisis caused by the fall in the price of a barrel of oil and serious problems in the administration of the State, the oppositions won a qualified majority in the parliamentary elections — two-thirds of the Assembly. With that, they could reform the Constitution and block the government, pointing to the beginning of the end of the Bolivarian process.
The government’s option then was to react and apply successive “coups” through the institutions to survive, to maneuver through the institutional gaps it had and the support in the state apparatus it still had in the Executive, the Judiciary and the Armed Forces. Successive distorted interpretations of the Constitution were adopted in order to maintain Chavez in power.
Among others, the election of opposition deputies was annulled in order to prevent the oppositions from maintaining a qualified majority in the Legislature; every subterfuge was carried out to delay and finally avoid the calling of a recall referendum, for which sufficient signatures were collected; and a “Constituent Assembly” was convened —which in the end went nowhere— just to overtake the majority opposition Legislature.
In this way, Venezuelan democracy has degenerated, in whatever sense the concept is used. Even though I defend the thesis that democracy can take many forms, that it is much more than institutions —and than certain institutions with which it has been confused—, I cannot concede that democracy means “minority rule”.
And that is what Chavismo is today: a regime that remains in power representing the minority of the Venezuelan people, through elections without independent verification that no longer legitimize it, elections in which the majority does not accept to participate. If in democracy a new majority is constituted, the new minority must concede defeat. Since 2015, Maduro has not shown that he considers this possibility.
The point is that in no way the oppositions manage to constitute themselves as a reliable alternative, after several coup attempts and episodes of non-recognition of the rules of the game also on their part. It doesn’t help that part of the opposition is associated with trumpism and pocketbookism, defending the military invasion of their own country, and being led by a self-proclaimed “president”. No other way out is foreseen from any left-wing or effectively popular opposition.
O DIALOGUE AS KEY TO OVERCOMING THE ENDLESS CRISIS
In a macabre dance between a chavismo that has already shown that it will do everything to remain in power —and that maintains military support— and various oppositions that struggle between coup, abstention and eventually dialogue, Venezuela is experiencing a “catastrophic draw”.
In this situation, in which diametrically opposed forces are blocking each other, a humanitarian crisis is advancing with hunger, flight across the borders of Colombia and Brazil, and crossings in precarious boats to Trinidad and Tobago.
If the catastrophic draws are resolved relatively quickly, the Venezuelan seems to be turning into an endless crisis. It is difficult to find a way out, given the extended economic crisis, the health crisis, the deep polarization, sabotage, and the seditious role of destabilizing external actors such as trumpism, the Organization of American States and the governments of Iván Duque and of Jair Bolsonaro.
If there is any possible solution, it will be long term: dialogues, dialogues and more dialogues, mediated by minimally balanced international actors.
It is hoped that, at some point in this history, all that blocked potential for popular participation is resumed, all that accumulated participatory learning is expressed, that flame of dormant revolutionary hope is rediscovered somewhere in this beautiful country.