Resisting Confusion: Pundit Michael Shifter and Venezuela

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue is the most frequently quoted commentator on Venezuelan affairs in the U.S. and in Britain. Unfortunately, he regularly confuses the issues and ends up providing a profoundly flawed analysis.

By Julia Buxton
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On April 7 2005 Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue published an article in the Financial Times. ‘Chávez should not steer US policy’ is the latest insight from Shifter on political developments in Venezuela and appropriate U.S. responses. Shifter has become something of a face and voice in the British media, regularly commentating on Venezuela. Debate around the nature, ideology, style and intentions of President Hugo Chávez is polarised both within and outside of Venezuela. Shifter is very much located within the critical camp and his position on Venezuela is very much aligned to the anti-Chávez perspective. The criticism of Shifter articulated here is not motivated by the pressing need to have balance in the coverage of Venezuela in the UK press. It is influenced by the fact that Shifter’s piece was structurally and conceptually flawed.     

The article positions itself within the wider ongoing debate over the resurgence of the left in Latin America. It starts by emphasising how far removed the contemporary left wing governments of Ricardo Lagos in Chile, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay are from the traditional Latin America left of the 1960s. In his words ‘Economic policies being pursued by so-called leftist governments in the region draw less from the writings of Ché Guevara than from those of Adam Smith.’ From this, we leap to the statement that ‘Although often included among Latin America's new crop of leftist leaders, Hugo Chávez […] does not fit.’ This is a surprising position as Chávez’s government has been one of the most economically orthodox. Despite the fiery rhetoric of the Venezuelan president, there has been no expropriation of legally held private land, property or businesses. Venezuela has continued to repay its international debts, private investment is encouraged and welcomed and there have been no policy of nationalising recently privatised assets. So why does Chávez not fit with this new Latin American left?

According to Shifter, Chávez is distinct from Lagos, Lula, Kirchner and Vasquez as he does not come from the tradition of ‘fighting for democracy’ that characterises his fellow presidents. While other countries in the region experienced right-wing military authoritarianism in the 1960s, 70s and 1980s, in turn prompting the left wing struggle for democracy, Venezuela remained stable and democratic. From this, Shifter proceeds with the claim that ‘the government Mr Chávez has installed in Venezuela bears greater resemblance to the regimes the other leaders fought against than the democratic societies they seek to construct.’

There are some real problems with this argument. It is most extraordinary that Shifter thinks it possible to draw parallels between the bloody and ruthless juntas that controlled countries like Argentina and Chile until democratisation in the 1980s. Shifter does acknowledge that the Chávez government has not matched the appalling human rights records of those regimes, so why attempt to draw similarities? It would seem that Shifter’s argument is underpinned by the single fact that Chávez was once a serving military officer. A few facts need to be rehearsed to demonstrate the futility of Shifter’s intellectual endeavours. Firstly Chávez was not a serving officer when he ran for election in 1998. Secondly, unlike the military regimes of the 1960s, Chávez is a democratically elected president. The Venezuelan government and its programme of change have been ratified by the Venezuelan electorate in 7 separate elections and referenda. It is acknowledged that there is a strong military component to the Venezuelan administration and ruling party, but the complex reasons for this are skipped by Shifter. The central issue however is that it is fatuous to draw parallels between military regimes of the right that took power by force and a democratically elected civilian government – particularly when the democratic credentials of the government are actually recognised by Shifter in his article.

But if we are to engage in the intellectual enterprise of comparing regime types, Shifter might find it beneficial to take himself back to his school books. The works of Nunn, O’Donnell and of course Huntington might be of relevance. Shifter makes the dreadful mistake of homogenising military regime types (if indeed we are to accept the premise that the Chávez administration is some form of military regime). As Nunn, O’Donnell and Huntington spent vast amounts of their academic research demonstrating, military government comes in all shapes and from all ideological perspectives, it engages with civilians in a variety of ways and employs divergent mechanisms to deliver policy. If any parallels are to be drawn, it would be academically and conceptually appropriate to compare the Chávez administration to the ‘breakthrough’ coups such as that in Peru in 1968, not the ‘foundational’ or ‘terminating’ coups experienced in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.

So why does the Venezuelan military play such a central role in the administration and political system of the country? To understand this it is necessary to look beyond the immediate question of Chávez’s background and examine (briefly) Venezuela’s recent political history. This highlights one of the key weaknesses of Shifter’s analysis. As all the recent academic literature of Venezuela shows, the actual quality of the democratic system that was in place from 1958 until 1998 was questionable. The two leading parties of the period, AD and COPEI operated in a clientelist manner. They politicised and degraded state institutions and they restricted the autonomy of civil society to such an extent that the Venezuelan electorate opted for a radical alternative that promised to sweep away the old system. The first issue then is that it is mistaken to argue that Chávez does not come from a tradition of fighting for democracy. On the contrary, the Chavista movement is a product of the lack of democracy in Venezuela between 1958 and 1998, a product of the social, economic and political exclusion that prevailed throughout that time and a product of massive disaffection with corrupt and politicised state institutions. We may not be enthralled by the type of democracy Chávez is seeking to build, or the manner in which he has chosen to do this, but it is important to note that the Chávez government has brought marginalised and excluded people into the political process and democratised power.

The second big lesson from Venezuelan history is that there is no administration or functional mechanism for delivering policy initiatives in the country. The Chávez government has sought to overcome institutional sclerosis and decay, in addition to the direct blocking of government initiatives by opposition placements, by bypassing the state administration. In the absence of any other body or organisation capable of delivering social policy and infrastructure repairs, the government has employed the armed forces. The military has consequently become a significant actor by default, (the absence of a neutral, meritocratic and functioning civil service due to the legacy of state politicisation by AD and COPEI) and by design. Chávez does see the military as partners in development. It is a position inspired by the Peruvian experience of the late 1960s hence the futility of the comparison with Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.       

Aside from the lack of historical grounding and the weakness of the conceptual analysis, a few other points are worth emphasising. Shifter states that ‘Messrs Lagos, Lula da Silva, Kirchner and Vazquez […] reject the belligerent, confrontational posture adopted by Mr Chávez.’ It is surprising that given his location and position, Shifter appears not to be cognisant of the severe limitations these other governments have imposed on US ‘diplomacy’ in the region. Commercial and political relations between Venezuela, Brazil, Chile and Argentina are strong and close and these countries have flatly rejected US efforts to isolate Chávez. 

Stability and security in the Andes is fragile and having taking its diplomatic eye off the ball as a result of events in the Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is finding it difficult to exercise its traditional leverage in the region. Poor analysis from ‘leading’ think tanks serves only to muddy the waters and sustain the US illusion that it is the champion of global democracy and master in its own hemispheric backyard. American policy approaches in Venezuela have backfired disastrously since 1999. The US administration would perhaps benefit from more quality in the insights provided by the country’s think tanks.

Julia Buxton

Dr. Julia Buxton is an academic working in the UK. She has published extensively on Venezuela including The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela, Ashgate 2001.