Has Venezuela Become a Dictatorship?

"Nicolas Maduro" by Hugoshi is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Is Venezuela a dictatorship? The words democracy and dictatorship should be defined on a continuum. But, it should by now be clear that Venezuela is closer to the latter than to the former. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro clinched power in a contested election in 2013. He promised a recount on national TV, but only hours later, he retracted. Ever since, he has claimed American imperialism is the real power standing behind opposition forces in Venezuela.

In 2014, in the midst of economic collapse, Venezuelans took to the streets in massive protests that eventually turned violent. The leader of those protests, Leopoldo Lopez, was always insistent on the need to keep the protests peaceful, and never endorsed violent actions. Yet, government forces imprisoned him. Ever since, other key opposition leaders have also been imprisoned. The National Guard continually confronts protesters, sometimes within the bounds of legality, sometimes not. Be it as it may, Maduro’s government refuses to reprimand the National Guard in its excesses. But, the real troubling part is the government’s use of paramilitary forces to do the dirty work. The government denies such involvement, but there are numerous reports of the links between gang members and government officials.

Lopez was sentenced with terrorism charges. Later on, due to tremendous domestic and international pressure, he was placed under house arrest, under the pretense that he required medical attention, although video footage shows Lopez in good physical shape.

Constitutionally, regional elections should have been held in December 2016, but Maduro’s government suspended them, arguing that the economic crisis would not allow for it. There are wide suspicions that, in fact, this was just a cynical move, foreseeing that Maduro’s sympathizers would be heavily defeated in the elections.

These suspicions were further reinforced when, in May 2017, Maduro called for a new election. Yet, this election would be to select representatives for a National Constituency that would derogate the current National Assembly, controlled by opposition representatives. According to Venezuela’s constitution (Article 348), the President may promote a National Constituency, but inasmuch as the people is declared the true sovereign of the nation (Article 347), it would have to be approved by popular vote. Maduro skipped that requisite (admittedly, such requisite is not made explicit, but a rational legal interpretation warrants it), and went forward with his imposition of the Constituency, in an election held on July 30. This election has received wide international condemnation, and was entirely boycotted by the opposition.

Astonishingly, the electoral referee (long accused of being deeply biased in favor of the government) claimed that nearly 45 percent of registered voters participated in the election. This is extremely hard to believe, taking into account that, under many independent surveys, Maduro’s popularity is at around 20 percent. Furthermore, for this election, the electoral referee outlawed any independent media coverage of the voting centers; only state TV was allowed in. And, in yet another move previously unheard of in Venezuela’s history, the electoral referee allowed voters to vote in any center across the nation.

Maduro is the successor of the late Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s charismatic leader who stood up against American imperialism, and advanced so-called “Socialism of the 21st Century. Chavez was immensely popular on the left, gaining praise from people such as Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Sean Penn. But, not every sympathizer of Chavez is happy now. There have been leftist dissenters (notably Venezuela’s Chief Prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz) who believe that Maduro is betraying Chavez’s legacy, and now oppose his dictatorial moves.

These critics are only partly right. It is true that Chavez was unfairly accused of being a dictator, and he kept his moves within the boundaries of democratic legality, although he constantly pushed those boundaries. Chavez himself promoted a National Constituency in 1999, but unlike Maduro, he submitted the National Constituency to the approval of popular vote. He was tough on the press, but he never imprisoned important opposition leaders. To that extent, he was never a dictator, and Maduro is indeed betraying his legacy.

But, Chavez did pave the way for Maduro’s dictatorial moves. He stubbornly insisted on imposing a socialist economy (via expropriations and nationalizations), and this ultimately caused Venezuela’s economic collapse. He also was adamant on staying in power indefinitely and abolishing institutional checks and balances, by seizing opportunities from legalistic loopholes.

Chavez’s impact on Venezuelan history is only second to that of Simon Bolivar, the great 19th Century general who freed Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia from Spanish rule. Although Chavez’s ideology is labeled Bolivarian, Bolivar is not a divisive figure in Venezuela. He is universally praised as El libertador, the liberator.

In truth, Bolivar was far from being a champion of democracy. It’d be more accurate to think of him as an enlightened despot. As he expelled Spanish authorities from what was then Upper Peru, he wrote a constitution for that new country, Bolivia. In that constitution, there would be a president for life, and other authoritarian institutions. Bolivar had the desire of a similar constitution for Colombia (a country that at the time also included current Venezuela and Ecuador), and to do so, he called for the Convention of Ocaña in 1828. Yet, the majority of the delegates of this Constituency did not accede to Bolivar’s request of approving an authoritarian constitution. As a result, Bolivar abolished the Constituency and declared himself dictator, cracking down on the press and other sectors of civil society.

Opponents of Maduro’s dictatorial moves are now using Bolivar as a symbol of resistance against despotism. They wear T-shirts resembling Bolivar’s military uniform. But, the irony is that, while he did fight against Spanish despotism, he ultimately replaced it with his own brand of despotism. After all, Maduro is right when he claims to be the political descendant of Bolivar. In the name of national liberation against an imperial power, they both became dictators. Part of Venezuela’s tragedy is that there has never been a sufficiently strong civil society; as in many other Latin American countries, the cult of caudillos and military strongmen is quite firm. If Venezuela’s opposition forces coherently want to resist Maduro’s dictatorial moves, they should look for alternate sources of inspiration, and let Bolivar rest in peace.

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Gabriel is a professor at Universidad del Zulia, Venezuela. He has written books on Darwin, the existence of God, the afterlife, and postmodernism.